BAGHDAD — Sunni militants overran one of the last government-held crossings on the Syrian border Friday after a fierce battle that left at least 34 Iraqi soldiers dead.
The fighting occurred as some clerics during Friday prayers signaled that they wanted Parliament to hasten the formation of a new government and reach across sectarian and ethnic divides.
Police and government officials reached in Qaim, the western border city of about 250,000 near the crossing, described a desperate, bloody struggle in which Iraqi army troops were overwhelmed by “hundreds” of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Fighters coming from Syria have been able to cross the desert freely for some time, but control of border crossings allows easier transport of fighters — including suicide bombers — and supplies, vehicles and heavy equipment.
“We would have stood and kept on fighting ISIS, but the government didn’t send us backup, and we were few in number and they had more fighters,” said Qaim’s mayor, Farhan al Qubaisi, who referred to ISIL, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and described a scene of heroic but ultimately futile resistance as the Iraqi soldiers were overrun. Still, a small part of the city and border crossing remained under government control late Friday, according to local officials and a Western military expert.
“The 34 soldiers who were killed were real heroes; they were facing hundreds of ISIS,” Qubaisi said, adding that among the dead was the commander of the brigade in charge of Qaim, Col. Majid Al Fedawi.
There are at least three main crossings along the long, serpentine border with Syria, and the Kurdish peshmerga forces took control of the northernmost one a few days ago.
The next closest crossing to Qaim, which is named Al Waleed, remained in government hands Friday evening, but a police officer stationed in Qaim and other government officials there said that there was only a small police force deployed at Al Waleed, and it was unlikely they could hold it for long.
The police officer said the ISIL fighters had taken over most of the government buildings in Qaim and freed prisoners being held in the police station.
“Those who were still here from the army have left the battle,” added the officer, who asked for anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters.
The militants, he said, “were in SUVs and pickups carrying heavy weapons.”
In Salahuddin province, which the militants entered last week, government officials were still fighting to hold the crucial Beiji refinery, which the militants occupied briefly Wednesday. On Friday, government forces led by Brig. Gen. Arras Abdul Qadir were inside the refinery, and the militants were besieging it from within the compound but still some distance away.
“I lost many of my soldiers,” Qadir said in a telephone interview. “I had many killed and wounded.”
“The only way to stay connected with forces outside is by air support,” he said, adding that the government had dropped food, ammunition and some additional troops Friday, in expectation of fresh assaults by ISIL.
“We are ready, we are prepared, we expect them any minute,” he said Friday.
Also Friday, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, issued a statement through a spokesman calling on Iraq’s diverse political parties to move quickly to form a new government. He also again clarified that his call for volunteers to defend Iraq against extremist jihadis was not meant as a call to arms for Shiites, but for all Iraqis.
Ahmed al-Safi, a leading Shiite cleric and al-Sistani representative in Karbala, gave the message at Friday prayers.
Safi said all political blocs should stick to the time frame in the constitution for convening a new Parliament, by July 2, and naming a speaker, the first step in forming a new government. If each step occurred on schedule, a new government could be in place by mid-August, but it could also be accelerated. In the past, the process often took much longer. The most important thing, according to the senior Shiite clerics, is that the new government be inclusive.
“The winning bloc should hold dialogue in order to form an effective government that enjoys wide national acceptance to correct the past mistakes and open new horizons for Iraqis for a better future,” Safi said.
The statement was interpreted by some as criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but was no more strongly worded than a number of previous statements from al-Sistani’s spokesmen.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama called for Iraqis to form an inclusive government and suggested, indirectly, that al-Maliki might not be the best person to do that.
Although al-Maliki’s party was the biggest vote-getter in the April 30 elections, his 92 seats in parliament fell far short of the 165 needed for the majority for him to claim a third term as prime minister, although the next largest vote-getter controls only 33 seats.