Iraq’s deeply divided parliament convened on Thursday to elect a new president, a crucial step towards ending the country’s political deadlock, which has lasted more than a year.
The country is facing its worst crisis in years, with the process of forming a new government dragging on as the political elite fail to reach a consensus after elections last October.
At least three loud blasts were heard inside or around the Green Zone, the seat of government offices, Parliament and foreign embassies in Baghdad. They were followed by the sound of security sirens.
A government statement said nine rockets were fired at the Green Zone and three people wounded, including one security personnel member. Several civilian cars were damaged, it added.
At least three rockets landed outside the Green Zone, hitting a mosque and the Central Railway Station.
The parliament session continued throughout the rocket attack. A secret ballot is underway as 282 lawmakers attended, surpassing the minimum of 220 needed for quorum.
Former water resources minister Abdul Lateef Rasheed received 156 votes in the first round while incumbent President Barham Salih achieved 99. Neither crossed the threshold of two-thirds majority to win.
MPs then progressed to a second vote, in which only a simple majority is required.
For months, political rivals have been at loggerheads over who should be the next prime minister and the country's next president — as well as how to share out government posts.
The prime minister's post is reserved for the majority Shiite community, according to an unofficial agreement between political parties since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The parliament speaker must be a Sunni and the largely ceremonial post of president is reserved for Kurds. Other government posts are divided among the political parties based on their religious and ethnic background.
A long-standing agreement between the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — stipulates that the president's post goes to the PUK, leaving the leadership of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to the KDP.
But after the KDP swept up votes in the Kurdish region in October, winning 31 seats in the 329-seat national parliament, they insisted on taking the post. The PUK won only 17 seats.
The KDP has backed Rebar Ahmed, the Kurdish region’s interior minister, while the PUK has nominated the current president, Barham Salih.
As of late Wednesday, both parties refused calls to consider compromise candidates, among them former water resources minister Abdul Lateef Rasheed.
Shortly before the session, the KDP withdrew its nominee, saying it will support Mr Rasheed, the compromise candidate.
But the largest Shiite bloc, the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework which holds 138 seats in the 329-seat legislative body, is still divided.
The biggest political group inside the Co-ordination Framework, the State of Law coalition, which has 38 seats, says it will vote for Mr Rasheed. Others will back Mr Salih.
More than 30 other candidates have been approved by Parliament for the post, but their chances of winning are slim, given that they are independents with no political backing.
Before the session, independent and opposition MPs announced they would boycott the session, while the Co-ordination Framework, which holds about 140 seats, is still divided on who to back.
The session needs a two-thirds quorum — at least 220 seats — to be held. Earlier this year, legislators failed to elect a new president three times owing to this lack of a quorum.
According to the constitution, the Parliament elects the president by a two-thirds majority. If they fail, they hold a second round in which a simple majority is required.
Tight security disrupting daily life
Fearing protests, the Iraqi security forces were stationed in the capital on Wednesday night, erecting concrete blast walls to close off key roads and bridges leading to the Green Zone.
The tight security measures have led to traffic jams and disrupted daily life in the capital.
Electing the president is vital to the government formation process. Once elected, the president will task the nominee of the largest bloc to form the Cabinet, according to the constitution.
The government formation process hit a deadlock when the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr wanted to leave consensus-based politics to form a majority government with top winners among Kurds and Sunnis.
That irritated his rivals in the Co-ordination Framework, which suffered major losses in the election. They wanted him to team up with them to form a wider Shiite bloc to negotiate the formation of the government and divide posts along sectarian lines.
After acknowledging his failure, in June Mr Al Sadr ordered his 73 MPs to resign, a move that further complicated the political scene. He now wants to dissolve Parliament and hold snap elections, while the Co-ordination Framework seeks the leading role in forming a new government.
Gas field hit by rockets
Meanwhile, at least eight Katyusha rockets struck the major Khor Mor gas field in the Kurdistan region on Wednesday night, without causing casualties or affecting operations, a statement said.
The field has been a target of similar attacks in recent months, but no group has claimed responsibility.
Kurdish officials have publicly said they believed Iran-backed militias were responsible.
Analysts believe that domestic political players could be behind these attacks to pressure the Kurds during the government formation process or others who want to stop Kurdish plans to export gas.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Kurdish region of Iraq has wooed Europe by touting its gas export capabilities as an alternative to Russian supplies.
Khor Mor field is at the heart of this plan.
The field is being developed by the Pearl Consortium, which is led by Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum with partners OMV of Austria, MOL in Hungary and RWE in Germany.
The rocket attacks have drawn condemnation from the US and UK ambassadors to Baghdad.
US Ambassador to Alina L Romanowski condemned “in the strongest terms” the attacks, warning that they “undermine democracy and trap Iraq in a perpetual cycle of violence”.
“The people of Iraq must resolve their political differences and grievances solely through peaceful means,” Ms Romanowski said.
UK Ambassador Mark Bryson-Richardson said the attack "is completely unacceptable".
"Violence has no part in the political process and state institutions must be allowed to operate," Mr Richardson said.