BAGHDAD — The United Nations urged Iraq's leaders Saturday to overcome their deep divisions and move quickly to form a new government that can unite the country and confront a surging militant threat, warning that failure to do so "risks plunging the country into chaos."
The Sunni insurgent blitz over the past month has driven Iraq into its deepest crisis since the last American troops left in 2011, sending Sunni-Shiite tensions soaring and raising the specter of a nation cleaved in three along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Iraq's new Parliament is scheduled today to hold its second session amid hopes that lawmakers can decide on a new prime minister, president and speaker of Parliament — the first steps toward forming a new government. It failed to make any progress in its first session last week.
The U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, called on lawmakers to attend the meeting and forge an agreement on new leaders. He warned of dire consequences if the current political deadlock drags on.
"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 in a statement. "Iraq needs a team that can bring people together."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled the country since 2006, is under pressure to step aside. His government's inability to prevent the attack, let alone roll back the militant advance, has sapped public — and international — confidence in his ability to hold Iraq together and lift it out of the crisis.
Al-Maliki's opponents, and even many of his former allies, accuse him of trying to monopolize power and alienating the Sunni community, and are pushing him to not seek a third consecutive term. Al-Maliki has so far refused to withdraw his candidacy, saying his bloc captured the most seats in April elections.
The militants, who have tapped into the deep disaffection among Iraq's minority Sunnis with al-Maliki, have swept through most of the country's predominantly Sunni areas in the north and west. The front lines have largely stabilized since their offensive encountered greater resistance in majority Shiite areas, although heavy fighting rages on.
On Saturday, Iraqi troops supported by Shiite militiamen battled Sunni militants who had seized at least partial control of a military base outside the town of Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. The troops and pro-government fighters succeeded in pushing insurgents out of the nearby hamlet of Nofal, police officials said.
Police and hospital officials said 31 pro-government fighters — a mix of soldiers and militiamen — were killed in the fighting. They said a family of five, including three children, was killed in government airstrikes on Nofal.
Killings in Baghdad: Gunmen in four-wheel drive vehicles raided two buildings in a housing complex in Baghdad late Saturday, killing at least 33 people, including 29 women, police said. They said at least 18 people were wounded. The motive behind the killings was not clear, but police said there are suspicions that the buildings were being used as a brothel.