BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Parliament on Thursday elected a soft-spoken Kurdish Islamic scholar as president amid hopes _ and some uncertainty _ that he will be able to save this oil-rich country from dismemberment at the hands of a radical Islamist army.
A veteran politician who’s known as a moderate and a conciliator, Fouad Massoum, 76, co-founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party along with Jalal Talabani, the country’s outgoing president, and served as the first prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
While many politicians had warm words for Massoum, a respected Kurdistan analyst cautioned that the longtime opponent of ousted leader Saddam Hussein is widely viewed as weak. “He’s a compromise candidate in Irbil,” said Hiwa Osman, referring to the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “If people want a compromise, they use him.”
The post of president was weak to begin with, Osman said, and “with him it will be weaker.”
Since the overthrow of Saddam in the U.S. invasion 11 years ago, the post of president has traditionally gone to a Kurd, and by a political arrangement among Kurds from the PUK.
But Massoum’s path to the position wasn’t smooth. With Kurds uncertain if they want to remain part of Iraq or pursue independence, the PUK originally named two candidates.
It wasn’t until late Wednesday, hours after Parliament was called into session for the vote, that the party picked Massoum as its candidate over former Prime Minister Barham Saleh. But another PUK member, Kirkuk Gov. Najimaldin Karim, also tossed his hat in the ring.
Massoum received 211 votes in the 328-seat Parliament in the second-round vote, with 17 members casting ballots for an unknown politician and 41 members submitting blank ballots. Some 102 men and women were on the first-round ballot.
Iraq’s crisis is almost unparalleled. As much as half the country is under the control of the Islamic State, an al Qaida spinoff that has declared an Islamic caliphate that stretches into Syria. The Iraqi army is in a state of collapse, and the prime minister who personally controlled the army insists on retaining his position.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who met Thursday with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said Iraq’s very survival as a state was at risk.
Standing alongside Maliki, who at times seemed to be scowling, Ban waded into Iraq’s domestic politics in a manner rare for a U.N. chief. He called for “a thoroughly inclusive government,” implying that Maliki’s was anything but, and urged the central government and the Kurdish government to resolve their differences.
“Iraq is facing an existential threat, but it can be overcome through the formation of a thoroughly inclusive government _ a government that can address the concerns of all communities, including security, political, social and economic matters,” he said. “It must be a government in which all Iraqis, regardless of background, feel represented.”
The carnage continues daily. On Thursday, 52 prisoners, most likely Sunni Muslims, died while being moved from Taji prison, west of Baghdad, along with nine policemen. The Iraq Interior Ministry said the bus carrying the prisoners was hit by unknown gunmen, but in at least one previous massacre of detainees being moved the police themselves had executed their prisoners.
Two car bombs were detonated in Baghdad’s upscale Karrada neighborhood Thursday evening, one close to the area’s premier shopping area, crowded with families shopping at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and the other outside a Roman Catholic hospital. Iraqi news media reported that 10 people were killed and 25 were wounded, some seriously.
Massoum’s first major task is to direct the creation of a new government, which will be no minor challenge. Maliki has a valid claim to staying in the top post after his Shiite coalition won a plurality in the April 30 elections, but Kurds and Sunnis are united in demanding that he be replaced.
In Washington on Thursday, a senior State Department official said Massoum’s election reflected the consensus of the country, as did that of the new speaker of the Parliament, Salim al Jabouri, a Sunni. But he indicated that Maliki staying on would not.
“Leaders do have to have a very inclusive agenda to pull the country together,” Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It remains to be seen whether the existing prime minister could build such a consensus, but that remains very much in question.”
With the radical Islamists almost at the gates to the capital, the biggest question is whether Massoum is the man who can steer the country back to stability.
“I have witnessed him in action,” said Mithal al Alusi, a secular Sunni politician with the Iraqi Democratic Movement. In 2004, when U.S. forces and the Iraqi army were in a dire confrontation with the Shiite Mahdi Army militia in Najaf, Massoum “saved the day,” Alusi said. “He has a calm demeanor and nerves of steel. He has a capability of finding solutions far from the extremes.”
Part of the high-wire act Massoum will have before him is to keep the country together, which runs counter to the drive in Kurdistan for independence.
But Laith Shubbar, a politician with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political movement, said Massoum had played a prominent role in drafting the new Iraqi constitution following the American invasion. That document made Kurdistan a largely autonomous province. “I believe he will be active in preserving the provisions of the constitution, which will put him in a strong negotiating position with all sides,” he said.
Massoum, who studied Islamic Shariah law as an undergraduate and received his doctorate in Islamic philosophy, “commands great personal respect from politicians in all the political blocs,” Shubbar said.
“The Kurds have not spelled out yet exactly how they want to get out of Iraq, or if they want to get out of Iraq,” said Osman, the political analyst. “At the same time, the Kurds are bound to the constitution.”
McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed.