A truck packed with explosives blew up in a city north of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 19 people, as security forces and allied tribesman battled to put down an uprising by al-Qaeda-linked militants who overran police stations in several Sunni cities.
The Shia-led government was trying to contain the eruption of militant violence in mainly Sunni Anbar province amid mounting sectarian tensions, fuelled by authorities' moves the past week, arresting a senior Sunni politician accused of terrorism and dismantling a months-old Sunni sit-in protest.
In an apparent move to raise Sunni support, security forces arrested a controversial Shia cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia. Sunnis have long accused the government of targeting only Sunni militant groups while blessing Shia ones.
Security forces and tribal fighters clashed with gunmen from al-Qaeda's Iraq branch a day after the militants launched a wave of attacks, fanning out to take over police stations and military posts in at least four cities and towns in western Anbar province. Militants freed prisoners and set up checkpoints in streets and roved through several Anbar towns in security forces vehicles they had seized, waving al-Qaeda banners.
The heaviest fighting Thursday came in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, 60 kilometres west of Baghdad, where two security officials said their forces were meeting particularly heavy resistance from al-Qaeda fighters. In the provincial capital of Ramadi, security forces took place several police stations, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Outside Anbar, a pickup truck laden with explosives blew up on a busy commercial street Thursday evening in the city of Balad Ruz, 70 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, destroying several shops, destroying several shops. At least 19 people were killed and 37 wounded, according to the security officials and health officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Violence has accelerated in Iraq since April, after the Shia-led government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp. The minority Sunni community complains of discrimination at the hands of the Shia-led government, and al-Qaeda's branch in the country has sought to exploit the resentment to rebuild and present itself as the Sunni's champion. Still, major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose al-Qaeda and are fighting against it.
In a concession to Sunnis, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled back military troops from Anbar, allowing local police to take over security duties. That was a main demand of discontented Sunni politicians who see the army as a tool in the hand of al-Maliki to target his rivals and consolidate power.
Shia cleric arrested
But soon after the pull-out, the militants launched the simultaneous assaults in several Anbar cities. Al-Maliki quickly ordered military reinforcements back in and called on Sunni tribesmen — many of whom deeply oppose al-Qaeda — to help put down the militants.
The arrest of the Shia cleric, Wathiq al-Batat, appeared to be aimed at maintaining Sunni support. Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim told The Associated Press that al-Batat was arrested in Baghdad on Wednesday. He gave no further details.
He has been wanted by the government since last year. Al-Batat formed the so-called Mukhtar Army to protect Shia from attacks by Sunni extremists. He claims to have more than one million members, a number that has not been independently verified. He took responsibility in November for firing six mortar shells at a region of Saudi Arabia bordering Iraq and Kuwait, describing it as retaliation for Saudi religious decrees that allegedly insult Shia and encourage killing them. He also claimed responsibility for attacks on a camp hosting an Iranian opposition group.
Al-Batat was previously a leader in Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades, which is not related to the better-known Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah in Iraq is believed to be funded and trained by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard and was among the Shia militias that targeted U.S. military bases months before their December 2011 withdrawal.
In other attacks Thursday, an explosive stuck onto a public minibus exploded in Baghdad's Shaab district, killing four people and wounding six. Three soldiers were killed and five wounded in a bombing of their patrols in the northern city of Mosul, the officials said.
Militants also carried out two attacks in Latifiyah, a mainly Sunni town 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, the officials said. In the deadliest attack, a bombing of an outdoor vegetable market that killed five civilians and wounded nine others. In the second attack, two soldiers were killed and five others wounded when their post came under fire by gunmen. Three militants were killed in the exchange of fire.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
On Wednesday, the United Nations said last year violence claimed the lives of 7,818 civilians in Iraq in 2013, the highest annual death toll in years. The UN's monthly figures for both civilians and security forces over the year totalled 8,868.