BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -Gunmen in Iraq dragged 24 people, mostly students, from vehicles and shot them dead, police said, as violence raged across the country on Sunday.
Iraqi leaders appeared deadlocked on naming new interior and defense ministers seen as critical to restoring stability in a country bloodied by relentless insurgent and sectarian killings.
Police said gunmen manning a makeshift checkpoint near Udhaim stopped vehicles approaching the small town 120 km (80 miles) north of Baghdad and killed passengers.
“(They) dragged them one by one from their cars and executed them,” said a police official.
The victims included students on their way to write end of term exams, children and elderly men, said another senior police official in Diyala province, scene of frequent attacks by insurgents waging a campaign of bombings and shootings to topple the U.S.-backed, Shi’ite-led government.
Some tried to flee but were gunned down, another police source said. Reuters photographs showed six men shot in the chest, including one old man and five young men. It was unclear whether the victims were high school or university students.
In Iraq’s south, a Sunni religious group accused security forces in the Shi’ite-run city of Basra of killing 12 unarmed worshippers in a mosque early on Sunday, but police said they had returned fire and shot dead nine terrorists.
The incident came just hours after a car bomb killed 28 people in Basra, challenging a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to crack down on criminal gangs and Shi’ite factions whose feuding threatens oil exports.
It was among the worst violence Iraq’s second city has seen since U.S.-forced invaded to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Communal violence has mounted throughout Iraq since the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in the city of Samarra, touching off a wave of revenge killings that sparked fears of civil war.
The United States, which has 130,000 troops in Iraq, hopes Maliki’s broad coalition of majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis and Kurds will be able to defuse the violence.
Key to that will be the naming of non-sectarian interior and defense ministers who can quell communal and insurgent attacks.
Intense wrangling forced Maliki to leave the posts empty when he unveiled his government of national unity on May 20. He has threatened to present his own nominees to parliament if political blocs fail to agree on candidates.
Government sources had said leaders were close to a deal to present to parliament on Sunday former Shi’ite army officer Farouk al-Araji for interior minister and Sunni General Abdel Qader Jassim, commander of Iraqi ground forces, for defense.
But deputy speaker Khaled al-Attiya said on Sunday the parliament session had been postponed “until further notice.”
Political sources said the powerful Shi’ite Alliance was deadlocked on a nominee for the Interior Ministry post. They said the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, part of the Alliance, had threatened to reject Araji’s nomination.
Some members of the Alliance said a deal could still be struck later on Sunday. But even so, there are no guarantees the successful candidates will be able to stabilize the country.
Iraqi state television quoted Interior Ministry officials as saying four Russian embassy employees kidnapped in Baghdad had been freed. The embassy said it could not confirm this.
A Russian embassy employee in Baghdad was killed on Saturday and four other embassy staff were kidnapped when gunmen blocked their vehicle in Mansour district, the latest of many attacks against foreigners in the chaotic capital.