Jul 23, 6:53 AM EDT

Iraq to vote on president after deadly bombing


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's parliament convened to vote for a new president on Wednesday as the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Baghdad the night before that killed 31 people, mainly civilians.

The bomber had rammed his explosives-packed car into a checkpoint near a revered Shiite shrine in the heart of the capital late Tuesday, as worshippers awaited security checks before visiting the site during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Another 58 people were wounded in the attack, which took place in the central Kazimiyah district.

Police officials confirmed the toll, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

In a statement posted online late Tuesday, the Sunni Islamic State group, which seized vast swaths of northern and western Iraq last month, claimed the attack and said it was "in response to the hostility of the (Shiite-led) government" of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his "criminal militias, who spare no effort in fighting Islam and Muslims."

The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified, but it was posted on a militant website frequently used by the group.

The Sunni militants' capture of large areas of Iraq last month, including the second largest city Mosul, plunged the country into its worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011 and has led to widespread calls for new leadership that can unite the country.

The Islamic militants have meanwhile vowed to take their campaign all the way to Baghdad, but their initial advance seems to have crested, with the front lines largely frozen in recent weeks.

Despite the crisis, lawmakers have struggled to agree on a new president and prime minister since April elections -- in which Maliki's bloc won the most seats.

With President Jalal Talabani's term set to expire, the vote for his successor is part of broader negotiations over forming a new government. At least 95 candidates are in the running, Shiite lawmaker Adel Shershab told state television on Wednesday.

Talabani, who suffered a stroke in late 2012, returned to the country on Saturday after more than 18 months abroad for medical treatment.

Since 2003, Iraq's political parties have agreed to assign the position of president to a Kurd, prime minister to a Shiite and speaker of parliament to a Sunni.

Two names have emerged as front-runners to succeed Talabani - former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh and the Kirkuk provincial governor Najimaldin Karim.

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Associated Press reporter Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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