By Ahmed Rasheed and Maggie Fick
Iraqi soldiers backed by Shi’ite militias fought Sunni rebels for control of a military base northeast of Baghdad on Saturday as a UN envoy warned of chaos if divided lawmakers do not make progress on Sunday towards naming a government.
Forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched an early morning push to repel Islamic State militants who fought their way on Thursday into a military base on the edge of Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of the capital.
Heavy fighting raged for hours and was continuing on Saturday afternoon, local security sources said.
Seven civilians including children from nearby villages were killed by helicopter gunship fire, police and medics said. Sources at the morgue and hospital in the town of Baquba said they had received the bodies of 15 Shi’ite militia fighters transferred after the morning’s fighting. State TV also reported that 24 “terrorists” had been killed.
The Sunni militants had moved toward the base after seizing the town of Sadur just to the north, another security source and eyewitnesses said. They were equipped with artillery and mortars and drove vehicles including captured tanks and Humvees.
Bickering lawmakers in Baghdad are under pressure from the United States, the United Nations and Iraq’s own Shi’ite clerics to form a new government swiftly to deal with the Sunni insurgency, which seized territory in the north and west last month, and has held it in the face of ground and air attacks.
Few doubt that an inclusive government is needed to hold Iraq together, but there is no consensus on who should lead it.
The national parliament elected in April met for the first time on July 1 but failed to agree on nominations for the top three government posts.
The UN special envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said the country could plunge into chaos if parliament fails to move forward on a government in a next session now set for Sunday.
He also urged lawmakers to turn up, after fewer than a third attended the first session when Sunnis and Kurds walked out after Shi’ites failed to nominate a premier to replace Maliki.
MALIKI SITTING TIGHT
Most of Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds demand Maliki leave office, and Shi’ites are divided, but he shows no sign of quitting.
Under a system created after the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shi’ite majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and, with one exception, the occupant of the largely ceremonial presidency has been a Kurd.
With politics in Baghdad paralysed, and Maliki continuing in a caretaker role, the fighting rages on.
The death toll rose to 30 on Saturday from a suicide bomb attack on Friday at a Kurdish-controlled checkpoint on the southern edge of Kirkuk province, where families fleeing violence in Tikrit and other areas overrun by militants last month were waiting to pass through.
Maliki’s opponents accuse him of ruling for the Shi’ite majority at the expense of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and want him to step aside.
Senior Shi’ite parliamentarian Bayan Jaber, a former interior and finance minister, said on Thursday that he hoped the Shi’ite National Alliance bloc, in which Maliki’s State of Law coalition is the biggest group, could agree on its nominee for prime minister before Sunday’s meeting.
But he said that if Maliki remained the sole nominee, “the problem will remain”.
Prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker Dhafer al-Ani said this week that “partition of Iraq will be the natural result” if the Shi’ite bloc could not put forward another candidate.
“If they insist on Maliki as the prime minister, then we will withdraw from the government,” he said. “I believe that it would be hard for any Sunni politician to raise his hand and vote for Maliki as prime minister for a third term.”
The head of the Kurdish Gorran bloc, Aram Sheikh Mohammed, said Kurdish factions would attend Sunday’s session, but the prospects of progress were poor.
“If Maliki nominates himself, I think neither the Sunnis nor Kurds will nominate their candidates (for speaker and president),” he said.
Kurdish forces seized two oilfields in northern Iraq from a state-run oil company on Friday.