Iraqi lawmakers elected a veteran Kurdish politician as the nation’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.
The 76-year-old Fuad Masum, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party led by Iraq’s previous President Jalal Talabani, accepted the mostly ceremonial position after winning two—thirds of the votes in parliament, noting the “huge security, political and economic tasks” facing the next government.
Masum’s election comes as Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops amid the blitz offensive last month by al-Qaeda breakaway Islamic State group that captured large swaths of land in the country’s west and north, including Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. The militants have also seized a huge chunk of territory straddling the Iraq—Syria border, and have declared a self-styled caliphate in the territory they control.
Iraq’s large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the militant onslaught, sapping morale and public confidence in its ability to stem the tide, let alone claw back lost turf.
But as the prisoners were being bussed through an area nearby, militants attacked again, this time with roadside bombs, igniting a gun battle 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. No one immediately claimed responsibility on the bus attack.