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Iraq: Kurdish politician Massoum named president

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum was named Iraq’s new president on Thursday hours after an attack on a prison convoy killed dozens of people, brutally underscoring the challenges faced by the country’s leaders as they struggle to form a new government.

Massoum, 76, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party led by the previous president, Jalal Talabani, accepted the position after winning two-thirds of the votes, noting the “huge security, political and economic tasks” facing the government.

Last month’s rapid advance of the Islamic State extremist group, which captured Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 and inflamed already-existing tensions between sectarian and political rivals.

Hours before Massoum was elected, militants fired mortar shells at army bases where detainees facing terrorism charges were being held in Taji, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the capital. Fearing a jailbreak, authorities evacuated the facilities, officials said.

But as the prisoners were being bussed through a remote area nearby militants attacked again, this time with roadside bombs, igniting a gunbattle that left 52 prisoners and eight soldiers dead, the officials said, adding that another eight soldiers and seven prisoners were wounded.

It was not immediately clear if the prisoners were killed by soldiers or militants, or if the Islamic State group was involved.

Islamic State militants have staged several jailbreaks, including a complex, military-style assault on two Baghdad-area prisons in July 2013 that freed more than 500 inmates.

The vote for president — a largely ceremonial post previously held by ailing Kurdish leader Talabani – is widely viewed as a step toward achieving consensus among political rivals, seen as necessary for tackling the deteriorating security crisis.

Massoum is considered a soft-spoken moderate, known for keeping good relations with Sunni and Shiite Arab politicians.

He was born in what is now the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil in 1938. He entered politics when he was 16 years old, taking part in Kurdish-organized demonstrations. He joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1964.

From 1973 to 1975 he was the Cairo representative of Kurdish rebels battling the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad, then went on to establish the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan with six Kurdish politicians, including Talabani.

The next step in Iraq’s political transition will be for Massoum, who has already officially assumed the title of president, to select a candidate for prime minister to try to form a new government.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in April elections, but he has faced mounting pressure to step aside, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, contributing to the latest unrest.

Al-Maliki has however vowed to remain in the post he has held since 2006.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Baghdad earlier Thursday, urging lawmakers to “find a common ground” so they can address the crisis sparked by the rapid advance of the Islamic State extremist group and allied Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq last month.

At a press conference with al-Maliki, Ban said Iraq is facing an “existential threat,” but one that could be overcome if it forms a “thoroughly inclusive government.”

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the presidency is held by a Kurd while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni.

Speaking alongside the U.N. secretary-general, al-Maliki said he is committed to quickly forming a government.

“Despite the fact that we have problems…we are moving at a confident pace to implement the mechanisms of the democratic work,” al-Maliki said.

More than a million Iraqis have been displaced this year, many of them fleeing the latest wave of violence, according to the U.N.

Ban strongly condemned the persecution of religious and ethnic minority groups by jihadi militants in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq, and offered continued U.N. support to the refugees fleeing the violence.

Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj, Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Iraq: Kurdish politician Massoum named president

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum has been named the new president of Iraq following a parliamentary vote.

Massoum, 76, is one of the founders of current President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. He is considered a soft-spoken moderate, known for keeping good relations with Sunni and Shiite Arab politicians.

The vote for president — a largely ceremonial post — was delayed for a day when the Kurdish bloc requested more time to select a candidate. They named Massoum as their pick late Wednesday.

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency is held by a Kurd while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliamentary speaker is Sunni.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Gunmen attacked a prisoner convoy north of Baghdad on Thursday, setting off a gunbattle with troops in which scores of prisoners and eight soldiers were killed, brutally underscoring Iraq’s instability as lawmakers convened to elect a new president.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Baghdad earlier Thursday, urging lawmakers to “find a common ground” so they can address the crisis sparked by the rapid advance of the Islamic State extremist group and allied Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq last month.

At a press conference with embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Ban said Iraq is facing an “existential threat,” but one that could be overcome if it forms a “thoroughly inclusive government.”

“I am deeply saddened by the senseless death of so many Iraqi people,” Ban said. He added that political leaders in Baghdad and the largely autonomous Kurdish region have a “clear responsibility” to work together to protect their citizens.

The dawn attack began with militants firing mortar rounds on Iraqi army bases in the town of Taji, where suspects were being held on terrorism charges, prompting authorities to evacuate the facilities, fearing a jailbreak, officials said.

As the convoy traveled through a remote area nearby, roadside bombs went off and militants opened fire. The ensuing battle left 52 prisoners and eight soldiers dead, with another eight soldiers and seven prisoners wounded, they said. It was not immediately clear if the prisoners were killed by soldiers or militants, or if the Islamic State group was involved.

The town of Taji is located some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the capital.

The officials – two policemen, an army officer and a medical official – spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.

Islamic State militants have staged several jailbreaks, including a complex, military-style assault on two Baghdad-area prisons in July 2013 that freed more than 500 inmates.

Apparently fearing a repeat of the incident, Shiite militiamen killed nearly four dozen Sunni detainees last month in the town of Baqouba northwest of Baghdad when the facility where they were being held came under attack, according to a report by Amnesty International.

The report documented a “pattern of extrajudicial executions” of mainly Sunni detainees by forces loyal to the Shiite-led government, both in Baqouba and in the north, basing its conclusions on interviews with survivors and relatives of those killed.

The rapid advance of the Islamic State group, which captured Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and declared a self-styled Islamic Caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border, has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.

More than a million Iraqis have been displaced this year, many of them fleeing violence brought on by this latest wave of violence, according to the U.N.

Ban strongly condemned the persecution of religious and ethnic minority groups by jihadi militants in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq, and offered continued U.N. support to the refugees fleeing the violence.

Al-Maliki has come under increasing pressure to step aside, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities. He has vowed to remain in the post he has held since 2006, and his bloc won the most votes in April elections.

The vote for president — a largely ceremonial post currently held by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani — was to take place later Thursday after being delayed the day before when the Kurdish bloc requested more time to select a candidate. They named senior Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum as their candidate late Wednesday.

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the presidency is held by a Kurd while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni.

Speaking alongside the U.N. secretary-general, al-Maliki said he is committed to quickly forming a government.

“Despite the fact that we have problems…we are moving at a confident pace to implement the mechanisms of the democratic work,” al-Maliki said.

Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj, Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.