BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – In the latest atrocity in a volatile area north of Baghdad, nine severed heads were found on Tuesday, police said, as Iraqi leaders faced a crisis over filling two security jobs critical to ending rampant bloodshed.
New Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was due to hold a news conference in the afternoon but it was unclear whether he would make any announcement on the two important security posts – the ministers of defence and interior.
In the second gruesome discovery in recent days, police in Baquba said nine heads were discovered in cardboard crates in the city’s northern al-Hadid district.
On Saturday, the cut-off heads of seven cousins and a Sunni Arab Imam were found by the side of the road near Baquba.
Baquba is the main city of Diyala province, a religiously mixed area that has seen frequent guerrilla attacks aimed at toppling the U.S.-backed, Shi’ite-led government and other sectarian violence.
Also in Diyala, gunmen on Sunday dragged 24 people, mostly students, out of their cars and shot them dead. The victims included Shi’ite Turkmen, one of Iraq’s ethnic minorities.
Such violence underscores the task Maliki faces in averting a slide towards civil war in the ethnically and religiously divided country of 26 million people.
The formation of his government of national unity on May 20 raised hopes both in Iraq and abroad that it would be able to defuse relentless killings.
But powerful factions within the government have so far failed to agree on the new interior and defence ministers, left vacant when Maliki took office due to intense wrangling.
Political sources said Maliki’s rivals in his ruling Shi’ite Alliance had objected to his choice for interior minister, a job that also includes being in charge of police.
Officials in the Alliance and other blocs question whether his government can survive the combined pressure of internal rivalries and the incessant killing.
“Maliki’s government may only last for another 6 months. That is what many think. There is too much pressure and too many players,” said a source outside of Maliki’s Dawa party.
“The situation is difficult, very, very difficult. There is more than a 60 percent chance that it will not continue. The government is not up to it.”
The United States, keen to see improvement on the ground so that it can start withdrawing its 133,000 troops in Iraq, hopes Maliki will name ministers who can start restoring stability.
“To his great credit the reason he has not yet put them in place is because he was determined that they be competent and that they govern from the centre,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday.
“And that is why it is taking so darn long for them to get those people (interior and defence ministers) in place,” the Australian newspaper quoted him as saying.
In Baghdad, gunmen shot dead the second head of a Baghdad district council in as many days, medical sources said.
Thoaban Abdul Kathim, of the western al-Jihad district, was killed along with an aide and his driver while they were heading to their office, they said. It came a day after the killing of his counterpart in the Mansour district.
At least seven other people were killed in shootings, bombings and mortar attacks in the capital early on Tuesday.
South of Baghdad, an Italian soldier was killed and four others were wounded on Monday when a bomb blew up the vehicle they were travelling in about 100 km (60 miles) from their base in Nassiriya in southern Iraq, the Italian army said.
Italy’s Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who took office last month, has vowed to live up to campaign promises for a swift pull-out of Italy’s military presence of around 2,600 troops. He recently called the Iraq war a “grave error”.