The Iraqi parliament faced a new crisis Sunday after members of the country's major Sunni Arab bloc fell out with one another over the nomination of a new candidate for speaker.
The dispute is over a replacement for former parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni who resigned last month amid controversy over his behavior.
Under Iraq's sectarian-based political system, al-Mashhadani's replacement must be a Sunni. But the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has been unable to agree on a candidate.
The 275-member parliament reconvened Sunday after a holiday recess but postponed a vote on a new speaker until the Sunnis can sort out a candidate.
Rifts within the Sunni bloc
But the dispute has already led to rifts within the Sunni bloc.
Taha al-Luhaibi said Sunday that his Independent Democratic Gathering — which has four seats in parliament — has withdrawn from the umbrella bloc, accusing the dominant Iraqi Islamic Party of trying to force through a candidate.
Another faction in the bloc, the National Dialogue Council, has also withdrawn from the Front to protest the Islamic Party's role.
"We managed to form a consensus with Sunni Arabs in parliament ... to present a number of candidates from each group for the position," Council leader Khalaf al-Ilyan said. "The Iraqi Islamic Party has secret deals with the Kurds and main Shiite parties to shape a new leadership to the parliament to implement their goals."
Officials with the Iraqi Islamic Party couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
The defections have reduced the number of parliamentary seats held by the Iraqi Accordance Front from 44 to fewer than 30 and threatens Sunni influence at a critical time ahead of Jan. 31 provincial elections.
The vote is not for the parliament, but rather the political parties are campaigning for positions on the provincial councils. Divisions within the Sunni parties could cost the minority community some seats in provinces with large Shiite and Kurdish communities.
Violence down but attacks ongoing
Al-Mashhadani's resignation came under heavy pressure from Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers after he tried to delay a vote on a security agreement to allow foreign troops, including British forces, to stay in Iraq past the end of last year, when a U.N. mandate expired. His resignation broke the impasse, and the agreement was eventually passed.
U.S. officials are hoping that provincial elections will lead to a redistribution of power that will empower Sunnis and stem support for the insurgency. Violence has declined sharply in Iraq but attacks continue.
Three Iraqi policemen were killed Sunday in a drive-by shooting in the northern city of Mosul, police said.
On Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad, the military said.