IRBIL, Iraq — Iraq's hopes of regaining control of nearly half the country from Sunni extremists suffered dual setbacks Monday, with the Iraqi Parliament once again failing to form a new government and insurgents killing a top military officer who was leading the defense of Baghdad's western suburbs.
Facing the gravest crisis to their country's survival since U.S. troops invaded in 2003, Iraqi politicians announced that Parliament would not meet again until Aug. 12 — putting off for more than a month any hope that a more inclusive coalition will replace the deeply unpopular caretaker government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.
That delay in turn will push back any decision on assistance to the government in Baghdad by the Obama administration, which has said political outreach to the country's Sunni Muslim population is a requirement of any new U.S. commitment to help.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States was disappointed that Iraq's leaders haven't moved more quickly to unify the country. He said difficult steps must be taken to solve the problem, but "reaching those agreements and making those difficult decisions are necessary for Iraq to survive."
The military situation remained grim. Al-Maliki's office announced that an insurgent mortar attack had killed Maj. Gen. Najim Abdullah Ali, the commander of the Iraqi army's 6th Division.
Ali was at his headquarters west of Baghdad when it came under attack from forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the fundamentalist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that now controls most of Sunni Iraq and much of eastern Syria. The group has declared an Islamic caliphate in the territory it controls and said al-Baghdadi is its leader.
The killing of Ali at a command post just 10 miles from Baghdad emphasized how small the distance is between insurgent strongholds in Anbar province and the capital.
In its statement, al-Maliki's office said Ali "met martyrdom on the battlefield as he was fighting terrorists when mortar rounds fell" on his headquarters near Ibrahim Bin Ali, a Sunni Muslim town that controls the western approaches to Baghdad.
The area is also key to controlling Baghdad International Airport, the capital's main lifeline now that the insurgents have cut the highways to both Syria and Jordan. Last week, the United States sent an additional 200 soldiers to Iraq to help secure the airport after U.S. officials detected what a senior Pentagon official told McClatchy Newspapers were worrisome insurgent moves near the facility.