Iraq haggles over new president as violence rages

BAGHDAD - Iraqi lawmakers were to choose a new president for their ailing country Wednesday as air strikes, suicide car bombs and summary executions yielded their daily grim crop of bodies.

A government air raid on the jihadist-held town of Sharqat nearly 300 kilometres (180 miles) northwest of Baghdad killed at least three women and a child, a senior army official told AFP.

Police and medical sources in the town said another four people were killed in the strike, which destroyed the municipality building and a house in an area believed to shelter Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Civilians have been paying a heavy price for the government's aerial campaigns against the group that conquered large swathes of Iraq's west and north in a devastating offensive last month.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday but before the latest strike, at least 75 civilians have died in similar raids since June 6 in four cities, including Sharqat.

'Awful toll'

"The government's air strikes are wreaking an awful toll on ordinary residents," HRW's deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said in a statement.

The New York-based watchdog was particularly critical of the government's targeting of hospitals in militant-controlled areas and of the use of barrel bombs on the rebel city of Fallujah.

Another government air strike Wednesday damaged a hospital complex in the main IS hub of Mosul, causing no casualties, a resident and a hospital worker told AFP.

The bodies of eight soldiers and allied militiamen executed the day before were found just north of Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city home to one of Shiite Islam's most important shrines.

Despite the billions of dollars poured into training and equipment by the United States during its eight-year occupation, Iraq's million-strong army intially disintegrated when IS fighters attacked on June 9 and captured Mosul, the country's second city.

Their advance stopped before they could reach Baghdad, but jihadist cells have continued to wreak havoc there with bomb attacks mostly targeting the police force.

The toll of a suicide car bomb blast against a police checkpoint guarding the entrance to Baghdad's mainly Shiite neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah on Tuesday rose to 32, according to medical sources.

At least 62 people were also wounded in the explosion, the latest to hit Kadhimiyah, which sits across the Tigris river from a Sunni stronghold and is home to another holy Shiite shrine.

Last month's Sunni militant offensive led to the proclamation of a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, once an Al-Qaeda offshoot that now appears to have outgrown the network founded by Osama bin Laden.

The onslaught plunged Iraq into its worst crisis in years and exacerbated ethno-sectarian tensions that had already claimed thousands of lives this year alone.

Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki has cast himself as a commander seeking to preserve the country's unity but critics say his own brand of sectarian politics is partly to blame.

Many armed groups, religious and political leaders among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community have sought to distance themselves from the Islamic State.

But some also see the offensive as a protecting the Sunni community from persecution by Shiite-dominated security forces and as their best chance to force Maliki from power.

Deputies were gathered in parliament Wednesday to elect a new president after April polls, but progress in renewing the country's fractious government has been slow and halting.

Lawmakers at Wednesday's session appeared stuck on agreeing the 2014 national budget, almost eight months into the year, and it was not yet clear whether they would broach the topic of the presidency before the end of the session.

Whoever succeeds the 80-year-old Jalal Talabani, who returned last week from 18 months of medical treatment in Germany to serve out his tenure on home soil, will have limited powers.

But whoever is chosen, and in Iraq the post is usually awarded to a Kurd, could reveal the political horse-trading that has been taking place over the past few weeks and also give a hint who could become the next prime minister.