BAGHDAD — After months of infighting, Iraq's parliament Sunday elected a prominent Sunni Arab Islamist as its new speaker.
Ayad al Samarrai, who heads the parliament's main Sunni bloc, won by a comfortable margin. The leading contender before Sunday's secret ballot vote, he's been a vocal critic of Iraq's Shiite Muslim prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who's recently rebranded himself as a secularist.
Samarrai's election, coming as the Obama administration prepares to begin drawing down American forces in Iraq, could aggravate ethnic and sectarian tensions that appear to be rising again, or it could prove to be a major step toward easing the longstanding friction between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.
There'd been widespread speculation that Samarrai's election might increase the likelihood of a parliamentary no-confidence vote against the U.S.-backed Maliki, whose removal would prompt a major shake-up in Iraq's fledging, Shiite-dominated government.
After his election Sunday, however, Samarrai dismissed the notion that his Iraqi Islamic Party is considering such a move.
"It is not and it has never been in the program of the IIP to bring down the government," Samarrai said in an interview with McClatchy. "We will only use our position to pressure the government and parliament into doing a better job."
Other Islamic Party members also said Sunday that a no-confidence vote isn't on their agenda.
"We don't have any will to remove Maliki," said Alaa Makki, an Islamic Party member. "We don't think that would be productive at this point. We need to build up our government, not take it apart."
Makki said that the parliament has been largely dysfunctional for the past three years, and that Samarrai's election will help change that. "We have been paralyzed by bad leadership," he said. "We need this reform."
The parliament's last speaker, Mahmoud al Mashhadani, also a Sunni Arab, stepped down in December after lawmakers criticized what they called his erratic behavior. The speakership has been vacant since his departure.
Under a system that splits the top positions among Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, Mashhadani's successor was expected to be a Sunni Arab.
However, parliament's main Sunni bloc, called the Iraqi Accordance front, was unable to agree on a replacement until Sunday.
In a February vote, Samarrai won approval from the majority of lawmakers who were present. His critics, however, claimed that wasn't enough, and argued that any winner must gain the approval of at least 138 lawmakers, or half of parliament's total membership, plus one. (At any given session, dozens of lawmakers usually are absent.)
Parliament recently appealed to Iraq's highest court to decide how many votes a winner must garner, but the court hadn't issued an opinion by Sunday. That didn't matter, though, because this time, Samarrai got 154 votes, enough to win no matter what the court might have decided.
Parliament's delay in selecting a new speaker has held up several important pieces of legislation, including amendments to Iraq's constitution and a law that would spell out how the country's oil revenue should be shared. Sunni Kurds have wrested control of most of Iraq's northern oil fields from Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs control the Rumailah fields in southern Iraq, as well as Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf.
Samarrai, 63, is a leader in the Iraqi Islamic Party, the first Sunni party to enter mainstream politics after Iraq's democracy replaced Saddam Hussein's secular but Sunni-dominated Baath Party dictatorship. It's the biggest party in the Accordance Front, the Sunni bloc that Samarrai heads.
Saddam's Baathists persecuted Samarrai, an engineer by trade, according to the Islamic Party's Web site, and he spent much of Saddam's rule living outside Iraq, most recently in Britain. He has dual Iraqi-British citizenship.
He'll remain as speaker until Iraq holds national elections, which are slated for the end of this year.
"Dr. Samarrai is a very responsible man, and he has a long history in the opposition" against Saddam Hussein," said Falih Fayadh, a member of Maliki's Shiite Dawa Party who didn't vote for Samarrai. "There was a desire to end this matter today, so coalitions (emerged)."
Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this story.