Sep 16, 2:56 PM EDT

Iraq parliament rejects interior, defense nominees


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi lawmakers rejected Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's nominees Tuesday to lead the defense and interior ministries, leaving the crucial Cabinet posts unfilled as an emerging U.S.-led coalition intensifies its air campaign against Islamic State extremists who have seized a third of the country.

Control over the two powerful security portfolios has long been a source of tension among Iraq's feuding political factions, and the failure to agree on the candidates marked the latest in a series of delays in forming a unified government that can confront the Islamic State extremist group.

The parliament session was held as the U.S. carried out an airstrike near Baghdad for the first time since launching an aerial campaign in early August, and French warplanes flying from the United Arab Emirates began reconnaissance missions over Iraq.

Al-Abadi, Iraq's new prime minister, put forward Sunni lawmaker Jaber al-Jabberi as his candidate for defense minister and Shiite lawmaker Riyad Ghareeb as his pick for interior minister. Parliament, which could confirm the nominees with a simple majority, voted 118-117 against Ghareeb, and 131-108 against al-Jabberi.

"The failure of the parliament to agree on the candidates to fill the posts of interior and defense ministers shows clearly that the gap among and inside political groups are still huge and that each bloc is pursuing its own ambitions," said lawmaker Mutashar al-Samarie.

"I think that the posts of defense and interior minister should be kept away from sectarian power sharing. Iraq's problems in Iraq can be solved only by bringing independent and efficient people to fill ministerial posts."

Ahead of the vote, two lawmakers, Hussein al-Maliki and Mohammed Saadoun, told The Associated Press that the selection of Ghareeb met with some contention, mostly from the Shiite Badr Brigade, a powerful militia with close ties to neighboring Iran. Ghareeb failed to win approval by a single vote.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker, said that many in parliament felt the two nominees were "not qualified" to hold the key posts.

"What we need are professional persons who have expertise in security and army issues," he said.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held both the defense and interior minister posts himself after his re-election in 2010 because lawmakers could not reach an agreement on them. That fueled concerns that he was monopolizing power.

Shiite lawmaker Mohammed Saadoun expressed hope that new nominees will be presented at the next parliamentary session on Thursday.

Mohsen Laftah Asfour, a lawmaker with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, was the only lawmaker approved in Tuesday's session and will become Water Resources Minister.

Lawmakers approved most of al-Abadi's Cabinet on Sept. 8 and officially voted him in as prime minister, bringing a formal end to al-Maliki's eight-year rule, but al-Abadi requested a delay in naming defense and interior ministers because lawmakers had not agreed on the proposed candidates.

Al-Maliki, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and former Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujeifi were given the largely ceremonial posts of vice president. Kurdish politician and former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was named one of three deputy prime ministers, while former premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari was named foreign minister.

The U.S. and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that can reach out to Sunnis, who felt marginalized by al-Maliki. Sunni discontent is widely seen as having fueled the Islamic State extremist group's dramatic advance since June.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the delay in filling the security posts was "part of the normal democratic process."

"We do appreciate the effort that Iraq's leaders have put forth thus far in forming an inclusive government... and they now of course must act without delay and make the necessary decisions to complete the Cabinet," she told reporters in Washington.

The U.S. began conducting airstrikes on Aug. 8 to aid struggling Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Sunni militants. U.S. Central Command said it conducted a strike on Monday in support of Iraqi forces southwest of Baghdad.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said that the U.S. strike southwest of Baghdad was conducted in coordination with the Iraqi military.

"This operation is the beginning of other operations that aim to eliminate Daesh in the areas around Baghdad," he said in a news conference, referring to the Islamic State group by an Arabic acronym.

Police officials said the U.S. airstrikes targeted militant positions near Youssifiyah, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, French reconnaissance planes equipped with cameras able to collect both day and night images from low and high altitude left from al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates on Monday as part of France's commitment to provide aerial support to the Iraqi government.

The U.S. hopes to pull together a broad coalition to help Iraq beat back the militants but has ruled out cooperating with neighboring Iran or Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, both of which also view the Islamic State group as a threat.

But Assad met in Damascus on Tuesday with Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayadh. According to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA, the two agreed to strengthen cooperation in fighting "terrorism."

"Fighting terrorism begins by exerting pressure on countries that support and finance the terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and currently claim to be fighting terrorism," Assad said, in a veiled reference to Gulf states, which have provided aid to the rebels fighting to topple him.

In downtown Baghdad on Tuesday a bomb exploded near a liquor store, killing two people and wounding four others, said police officials.

A medical official confirmed the casualties. All official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Matthew Lee in Washington and Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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