Iraq fighting grows, raising fear of spreading unrest
BAGHDAD (AP) - Gunmen have taken over a Sunni town north of Baghdad after a firefight with security forces, Iraqi authorities said Thursday, raising concerns that unrest is spreading. Iraq's prime minister appeared on national television to appeal for calm.
The seizure of the town of Suleiman Beg follows clashes between soldiers and Sunni protesters earlier in the week, which set off fighting in Sunni towns in western and northern Iraq. More than 100 people have been killed in the past three days.
The latest unrest began on Tuesday when fighting broke out in the northern town of Hawija during a security crackdown on a protest encampment. Three members of the Iraqi security force and at least 20 other people were killed. The government said gunmen fired on the security forces as they entered the camp to make arrests related to an earlier incident.
In his first public comments since the Hawija killings, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed for calm, urging Iraqis to unite for the sake of the country and stand up against extremists.
"We all have to shoulder responsibility after what happened in Hawija and what's going on today in Suleiman Beg and other areas," he said in a televised address. "If (sectarian) conflict erupts, there will be no winner or loser. All will lose, whether in southern or northern or western or eastern Iraq."
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that gunmen had taken control of the Suleiman Beg police station and other governmental buildings, and were deployed in the streets of the town, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Baghdad. The ministry did not provide information on casualties.
On Wednesday, police and hospital officials reported fierce clashes in the town that resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and 12 others, including some gunmen.
The mayor of the city of Tuz Khormato, to which Suleiman Beg is administratively annexed, said security forces had laid siege to the small town and sporadic clashes were continuing. The official, Shalal Abdool, said there were additional casualties among gunmen on Thursday, but he couldn't provide numbers.
Also in the north, clashes erupted late Wednesday in the city of Mosul between gunmen and police in some districts. The fighting died down by Thursday morning after security forces brought the situation under control. Residents said the city is now largely quiet withÂ many people staying home in fear.
Ten gunmen and four police officers were killed in the Mosul clashes, and 12 policemen were wounded, according to police and morgue officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Northeast of Baghdad, the Iraqi army has surrounded the town of Qara Tappah, where deadly clashes also were reported on Wednesday. The army and some tribal leaders in the town are in contact to try to ease the tensions, and the situation is calm for now, according to local police. Qara Tappah is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of the capital.
Gunmen also opened fire on a police checkpoint near Fallujah, killing two policemen and wounding two others, according to police.
The turmoil is aggravating an already sour political situation between Sunnis and the Shiite-led government. A Sunni politician who recently announced his resignation from the Cabinet has urged al-Maliki, a Shiite, to step down to calm the tensions.
"Iraq is in a dire situation now and I believe that there must be serious solutions," Abdul-Karim al-Sammarraie told The Associated Press on Thursday in a phone interview. "One of the solutions is the resignation of the prime minister and for him to leave the government to another who can run it temporarily. Otherwise, the options for Iraq are only dangerous ones."
Al-Sammarraie is Iraq's minister of science and technology. He and Minister of Education Mohammed Tamim submitted their resignations this week in the wake of the killings in Hawija. Al-Sammarraie said that Industry Minister Ahmed al-Karbouli also submitted his resignation.
Al-Karbouli could not be reached for comment, but an official in his office confirmed the move. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements about the resignation to the media.
Also on Thursday, attackers detonated explosives on a key oil pipeline linking Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, disrupting crude oil exports, according to officers in the oil protection force and Salaheddin provincial police.
The attack happened near the town of Shurqat, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Baghdad. The pipeline is frequently targeted by militants.
A roadside bomb exploded on two Army vehicles patrolling south of Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding six others, police and hospital officials said.
Like other police and health officials providing details of the attacks, they spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
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