BAGHDAD — Amid escalating political wrangling, Iraqi lawmakers elected an Iran-backed Sunni Arab as speaker of parliament on Saturday, the first step in forming a new government four months after national elections.
The 37-year old speaker was supported by the pro-Iran bloc inside parliament, the Building coalition, which is mainly made up of Iran-backed Shiite militiamen — underscoring the growing Iranian influence in the process of forming the country's new government.
During a secret ballot, 169 lawmakers voted for Mohammed al-Halbousi, the former governor of Anbar, and 89 others voted for the former defense minister, Khalid al-Obeidi, lawmaker Ahmed al-Asadi said.
"This is a victory for the Building coalition," prominent Sunni politician Mahmoud al-Mashhadani told The Associated Press after the session. "No one can ignore the Iranian influence in Iraq, it's stronger than the U.S.'s (influence)," al-Mashhadani added.
Early this month, the newly-elected parliament held its first session, but two Shiite-led blocs came into conflict, each claiming to be the largest bloc that should be tasked to form the new government. Namely, they are the Building coalition and the pro-U.S. Reform and Building coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc.
Also Saturday, legislators elected Hassan Karim as the first deputy parliament speaker, according to legislator Dhafer al-Aani. Karim is a member of al-Sadr's bloc.
The parliament has yet to vote for the second deputy parliament speaker, a Kurd. Three members of parliament are running for the seat.
Iran was the among the first countries to congratulate al-Halbousi. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi said in a statement that Tehran "has always supported the democracy, territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Iraq and supports decisions made by the people's representatives."
Qasemi said in the remarks carried by state news agency IRNA that he hoped al-Halbousi's election will be followed by electing a president and prime minister, paving the way to establish a new government in Iraq.
Alarmed by the political wrangling and the bloody protests in the southern city of Basra against poor public services and unemployment, the country's Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for the appointment of a new face to lead the government. On Friday, al-Abadi said he'll not "cling to power."
Two Shiite politicians from the Reform and Building coalition who attended meetings between political parties to form the government, said Iran played a major role in undermining al-Abadi's efforts to secure a second term. Iran tried to bribe and threaten lawmakers, they said.
Ahead of the parliament first session in Sept. 3, the U.S. brokered a deal to have Kurds join the Reform and Building coalition so that it becomes the larger bloc, the politicians said. Hours ahead of the session, a politician went to residence of the Kurdish diplomatic mission in the Green Zone to collect signatures from Kurdish lawmakers.
"I was surprised when I saw the Iranian ambassador sitting at the restaurant of the Kurdish residence to discourage the Kurdish (lawmakers)," from joining the coalition, one of the politician said. "He left fifteen minutes before the session started."
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief media.
Tehran had previously dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to Iraq to ensure the pro-U.S. coalition does not threaten its interests in the region.
Baghdad-based political analyst Essam al-Faily said that contributing to Iran's successful sway in Iraq is that it "controls militias that have with influence on the ground. It has influenced even Sunni leaders."
Under an unofficial agreement dating back to 2003, the position of prime minister is reserved for Shiites, the president a Kurd and the parliament speaker a Sunni.
Parliament now has 15 days to elect the president who will task the nominee of the largest bloc to form the government. Political wrangling among the Shiite-led blocs and other factions will likely indefinitely delay the process of naming a prime minister.