BAGHDAD - Iraqi security forces advanced into the militant-held city of Tikrit in a renewed assault on Tuesday, as the country's fractious parliament held a long-delayed vote on a new speaker.
World powers and Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have piled pressure on MPs to put aside their differences amid a major jihadist-led onslaught that has overrun territory in the north and west, but they have so far failed to do so.
Security forces began the attack on Tikrit on Tuesday morning, aiming to revitalise an operation to retake it that began more than two weeks ago but had bogged down south of the city.
"Iraqi forces began a military operation to liberate the city of Tikrit and our forces were able to control the southern part of the city," Ahmed Abdullah Juburi, the governor of Salaheddin province of which Tikrit is the capital, told AFP.
An army colonel said the police academy and a hospital in Tikrit had been retaken, and Juburi confirmed those facilities were in government hands, along with the governorate headquarters.
The city was seized by militants on June 11 as part of a sweeping offensive that has overrun large areas of five provinces since it began last month.
Violence also struck south of Baghdad on Tuesday, with bombings in the Madain area killing nine people, including four soldiers, officials said.
The blasts and the new push for Tikrit came a day after the Pentagon said that American military teams sent to Iraq last month have completed their assessment of Iraqi security forces.
The details were not released, but The New York Times said one conclusion was that only roughly half of Iraq's units are capable enough to be advised by US personnel, if the decision is taken to do so.
- Parliament votes -
While security forces pressed their assault on Tikrit, Iraq's new parliament met to vote for a new speaker, a post that must be filled before the process of forming a government can move forward.
The vote, which was held behind closed doors, came after the legislature, which was elected on April 30, met twice before but failed to make progress.
On Sunday, acting speaker Mahdi Hafez announced that "no type of agreement was reached... between the various blocs", after which parliament was adjourned until Tuesday.
And a July 1 meeting broke down when MPs traded barbs and enough failed to return after a break that the legislature was left short of a quorum.
The UN's Iraq envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, has warned that "failing to move forward on electing a new speaker, a new president and a new government risks plunging the country into chaos".
Former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, speaking Sunday about Tuesday's planned session, said: "If we can't agree within those 48 hours, we still won't agree in 48 days."
- Deep divisions -
But calls for progress have so far gone unheeded, and prospects appear dim for any speedy resolution of seemingly intractable differences over key appointments and other issues.
Ties between the Baghdad government and Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have hit a new low, and prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to seek a third term despite some lawmakers insisting he step aside.
The Kurdish region's government has laid claim to disputed northern oilfields, having earlier taken control of other contested areas abandoned by Iraqi forces last month as they fled a sweeping Islamic State-led offensive.
Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani has also called for a vote on outright independence.
Maliki has accused the Kurds of exploiting the insurgent offensive and harbouring militants, while the Kurds say Baghdad is unfairly withholding their share of oil revenues and have called for him to step down.
Maliki, a Shiite Arab viewed by opponents as a divisive and sectarian leader, has no plans to do so, despite eroding political support and thinly veiled calls for change from Washington.
The 64-year-old premier and his coalition partners dominated elections in April, and there is no obvious consensus candidate to replace him.
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Iraq forces push into Tikrit, parliament votes on speaker