After months of deadlock, Iraqi lawmakers elected a new president of the country on Thursday: senior Kurdish politician Fouad Masoum. The president-elect is known as a moderate, conciliatory figure – necessary attributes when it comes to keeping Iraq’s contentious parliament in check. That said, the presidency is largely a ceremonial position, which may explain why it has historically been filled by a Kurdish candidate, whereas the more powerful premiership falls to a representative of Iraq’s Shiite majority, and the parliamentary speaker is typically a Sunni. (Iraqi Kurds have long been marginalized by the state amid their increasingly successful push for autonomy.)
The stalemate in Baghdad has exacerbated an insurgency by radical Sunni militants that began last month; after seizing the critical northern city of Mosul, the armed movement that calls itself the Islamic state has steadily inched towards the Iraqi capital. Thursday saw an attack on a prisoner convoy near Baghdad in which dozens of prisoners and soldiers were killed. Iraq’s instability is such that U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon traveled to Iraq this week, calling on MP’s to “find a common ground.” But while lawmakers have chosen a president, following a brief delay as Kurdish factions mulled their candidates, the more daunting task of electing a prime minister remains.
Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled in a caretaker capacity since 2006; his authority was cemented this April when his Dawa party dominated parliamentary elections. Yet the calls for his resignation are amplifying amid accusations that Maliki has alienated Iraq’s minority groups with his divisive tactics. Indeed, the prime minister’s exclusionary policies against Sunnis in particular look to have driven some marginalized groups to join militant movements like the Islamic State. (Read more in our primer: Extremism in Iraq, explained). The critiques are not coming from within Iraq alone, where the country’s leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has urged the prime minister to step down, but also from ally Iran, whose support was critical to Maliki’s win four years ago.
Nonetheless Maliki is trying to stay put for a third term in office. If he succeeds, it’s hard to imagine a power-sharing deal that would ease Iraq’s current crisis. (To better evaluate the extent of animosity towards the prime minister, note that powerful Sunni groups currently backing the insurgency are pledging to withdraw their support if Maliki resigns.) Yet the law may be on Maliki’s side. On Wednesday, Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled that the leading parliamentary bloc, in this case Maliki’s faction, is to be tasked with choosing a prime minster and forming a new government. Which means an end to Iraq’s reigning instability may be far off still.