BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi lawmakers broke two weeks of deadlock Tuesday and elected a moderate Sunni as speaker of parliament, taking the first step toward forming a new government that is widely seen as crucial to confronting militants who have overrun much of the country.
Still, it was not clear whether lawmakers had reached a larger deal that would also include an agreement on the most contentious decision — the choice for prime minister. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has ruled the country since 2006, but is under intense pressure to step aside. So far, he has insisted on staying for a third term.
After voting behind closed doors, the legislature tallied the results on a whiteboard wheeled into the hall that showed Sunni lawmaker Salim al-Jubouri winning with 194 votes out of 273 cast in the 328-seat parliament. A second candidate, Shorooq al-Abayachi, received 19 votes. There were 60 abstentions.
"Today's step demonstrates the country's democracy and national unity," said Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati, putting a decidedly positive spin on a vote that was delayed twice. "We have now a legislative body that can do its job in building democracy."
Lawmakers broke into applause after al-Jubouri passed the 165-vote threshold needed to win the post, and some of his colleagues padded over to offer their congratulations.
According to the constitution, parliament now has 30 days to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to ask the leader of the largest bloc in the legislature to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked.
Under an informal agreement that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the speaker's chair goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister's post to a Shiite.
The inability of al-Maliki's government to halt the militant offensive over the past month has deeply shaken confidence, both at home and abroad, in his ability to hold Iraq together. His opponents — and even many of his former allies — accuse him of trying to monopolize power and alienating the Sunni minority.
Al-Maliki has so far refused to withdraw his candidacy, and insists he has a mandate because his bloc won the most seats in April elections.
Despite al-Jubouri's election, signs quickly emerged that any agreement on a president, prime minister and eventually a new Cabinet may still take some time.
Al-Bayati, the State of Law coalition legislator, said the Shiite bloc's support for al-Jubouri Tuesday was predicated upon reciprocal support for al-Maliki's prime minister bid.
"There is an ethical and political agreement with the blocs to whom we gave our vote today to support their candidate for the post of parliament speaker, and to vote for our candidate for the post of prime minister: al-Maliki" al-Bayati said.
Sunni lawmaker Mohammed Ikbal, a member of al-Jubouri's bloc, denied there was any such deal.
"We do not support a third term (for al-Maliki) because of the wrong policies in the country and the deterioration in the security situation," Ikbal told The Associated Press. "We support any other candidate from the National Alliance."
Perhaps just as important were the divisions that emerged within the National Alliance, the umbrella group for Shiite parties, during the vote for the first of two deputy speakers.
According to lawmakers, there was an agreement among all of the alliance's blocs to present the State of Law's Haider al-Ibadi as the Shiite nominee for deputy speaker. But at the last minute, a second Shiite candidate, Ahmed Chalabi, was also nominated for the post.
When it came time to cast ballots, al-Ibadi and Chalabi nearly split the vote, forcing lawmakers to cast their ballots again. Chalabi, a secular Shiite and one-time Washington favorite widely disliked by Iraq's Sunnis, eventually withdrew his candidacy.
But the dispute pointed to the deep divisions within the National Alliance, and suggested that Shiite parties are still far from settling on a common candidate for the crucial post of prime minister.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the election of a speaker and two deputies, and urged Iraq's leaders "to follow this achievement with rapid formation of a new government."
"Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq's leaders need to confront that threat with the urgency that it demands," Kerry said.
The panic that gripped Iraq after Sunni militants led by the Islamic State extremist group swept across the north and west of the country last month, seizing the second-largest city Mosul, has largely subsided.
After appearing on the verge of collapse, Iraq's security forces have stiffened while the insurgent offensive has eased, leading to relative stabilization on the front lines.
The military opened a counteroffensive against the militant-held city of Tikrit more than two weeks ago, but has failed to make any major advance into the city itself.
On Tuesday, officials said government forces began a new push against the city, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
"Iraqi security forces on Tuesday launched a military operation to purge Tikrit of militants," said Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the provincial operation command.
Al-Bolani claimed that troops had taken over the Tikrit general hospital as well as a police academy on the southern edge of the city.
After sundown, two car bombs exploded on a commercial street in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 13 people and wounding 28, police and medical officials said.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.