BAGHDAD: The UN warned yesterday that Iraq’s deeply-divided politicians must quickly form a government or risk descent into “chaos”, as security forces beat back one militant assault but lost ground elsewhere.
Iraqi MPs are to hold a parliament session today aimed at reviving flagging efforts to form a government in the face of a jihadist-led militant offensive, which has overrun large areas of five provinces since it began on June 9.
The previous session of parliament earlier this month ended in mayhem, with MPs trading heckles and threats. Too few returned to the chamber after a break meant to cool tempers and the quorum needed to proceed with a vote was lost.
UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned Iraqi politicians that “failure to move forward on electing a new speaker, a new president and a new government risks plunging the country into chaos”.
“It will only serve the interests of those who seek to divide the people of Iraq and destroy their chances for peace and prosperity,” he said.
“If serious solutions to the current problems are not found, then all political leaders will have to share their responsibility for failing to act with the necessary sense of duty at a time of crisis.”
Attendance could be a problem, with parliament not even able to reach a quorum for an emergency session called at the height of the militant offensive last month.
Abdulsalam Al Maliki, an MP from Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s list, said point blank that any member of the Shia National Alliance who stays away is siding with “the enemies of Iraq.”
In Anbar province, security forces backed by tribal fighters held off a major attack by militants on Haditha, a town northwest of Baghdad made strategic by the large nearby dam and its oil refinery.
The attack on Haditha, located on the road linking militant-held western areas and the provincial capital Ramadi, began with mortar fire, police said.
Gunmen travelling in vehicles, including some captured from security forces, then attacked from two sides but were kept from entering the town in fighting that left 13 militants and four police dead, officers and a doctor said.
Previous attacks on Haditha were of a smaller scale and the capture of the dam by the militants would raise the prospect of it being used to cut water or flood areas downstream, as happened earlier this year elsewhere in Anbar.
In Diyala province, meanwhile, security forces and civilian volunteers yesterday launched a push to retake militant-held areas north of Muqdadiyah, a town on a main road to provincial capital Baquba, a police captain said.
But in a setback for government forces, militants overran the Shia-majority towns of Al Tawakul and Al Zarkush in the province, displacing local residents, witnesses said.
In Jalawla, another Diyala town, Kurdish peshmerga fighters began a major operation to expel militants from areas they hold, a senior Kurdish officer said. Major General Hussein Mansur said Kurdish forces were using tanks and artillery in the battle, and had succeeded in retaking territory from the militants.
Security forces folded during the initial offensive led by the Islamic State jihadist group, prompting the government to announce that it would arm civilian volunteers, thousands of whom have since signed up.
While security forces have since improved, they are still struggling to make significant gains in offensive operations, and a major push to retake executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit has made little progress in more than two weeks.
As federal security forces quit their posts in northern areas during the initial fighting, Iraqi Kurds took control of a swathe of disputed territory that they have long wanted to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad’s strong objections.
They have kept areas from being overrun by militants, but the move has caused a major escalation in tensions between the Kurdish region and the federal government. Kurdish authorities on Friday laid claim to disputed northern oilfields in a move slammed by Baghdad, further raising the stakes.
The Baghdad-Kurd row has dimmed the prospects of significant progress in forming a new government when parliament meets today. The political deadlock raises fears that Iraq could splinter along ethnic and sectarian lines, a reality already playing out in parts of the country. Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged fighters on Friday to respect the rights of all Iraqis, regardless of sect or politics.
There have been many reports of disappearances and suspected mass killings since the insurgents’ offensive began last month. Tensions are high in Sunni areas north of Baghdad where Islamic State militants have lashed out at communities they see as supporting government forces.
Iraqi security forces and government affiliated militias appear to have unlawfully executed at least 255 prisoners over the past month in apparent revenge for killings by Islamic State fighters, a Human Rights Watch