Iraq hopes to avoid carve-up as it elects Kurdish scholar Fouad Massoum president

Feuding parties hope Fouad Massoum can stop jihadist carve-up of nation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 10:56pm

Iraq's parliament has elected a moderate Kurdish Islamic scholar as president amid cautious hopes that he will be able to save the country from being carved up by jihadists.

A veteran politician known as a conciliator, Fouad Massoum, 76, co-founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party with Jalal Talabani, the country's outgoing president. He also 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 long-time opponent of ousted leader Saddam Hussein is widely seen as weak.

"He's a compromise candidate in Arbil," 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 Saddam's overthrow 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 was not 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 on 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 governor 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.

As much as half of Iraq is under the control of the Islamic State group, which has declared a caliphate that stretches into Syria. The Iraqi army is in a state of collapse, and the prime minister who personally controlled the army is clinging to his position.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday, 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 UN chief.

He called for "a thoroughly inclusive government", and urged the central government and the Kurdish government to resolve their differences. "It must be a government in which all Iraqis, regardless of background, feel represented," Ban said.

Massoum's first major task is to direct the creation of a new government. Maliki has a valid claim to staying in the top post after his Shiite coalition won the biggest share of votes in April polls, but Kurds and Sunnis both want him replaced.