BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen battled on Thursday to put down al-Qaida-linked gunmen who, in a coordinated surge, ran rampant in two of the country's main Sunni cities, overrunning police stations and sweeping through the streets, emboldened by mounting sectarian tensions between minority Sunnis and the Shiite-led government.
Troops hammered the militants with Hellfire rockets recently sent by the United States to help the government's fight against al-Qaida's Iraq branch, which also operates with increasing strength in Syria's civil war across the border. The militants' swift uprising a day earlier overwhelmed police forces in Ramadi and Fallujah, two cities in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province that were once strongholds for militants battling U.S. troops.
The al-Qaida branch, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, appeared to be trying to exploit Sunni anger after authorities over the past week arrested a senior Sunni politician accused of terrorism and dismantled a months-old sit-in in Ramadi by Sunnis protesting discrimination the government. Those moves added new fuel to sectarian violence that has escalated since the American withdrawal.
In new violence outside Anbar, a pickup truck laden with explosives blew up on a busy commercial street Thursday evening in the city of Balad Ruz, 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, destroying several shops. At least 19 people were killed and 37 were 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.
Al-Qaida militants have been presenting themselves as the Sunnis' champions against the government. Still, major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose al-Qaida and are fighting against it.
In a concession to Sunnis after the dispersing of the sit-in, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled 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 al-Maliki uses to target his rivals and consolidate power.
But soon after the pull-out, the militants launched the simultaneous assaults in Ramadi, Fallujah and at least two other nearby towns. They seized police stations and military posts, freed prisoners and fanned out in the streets, setting up checkpoints. Some were seen cruising in captured security forces' vehicles, waving black al-Qaida banners.
Al-Maliki quickly ordered military reinforcements back in and called on Sunni tribesmen to help in the fight against the militants.
The heaviest fighting Thursday came in Fallujah, 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, where two security officials said their forces were meeting particularly heavy resistance from al-Qaida fighters. In the provincial capital of Ramadi, security forces took back 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. Footage released by the military showed forces firing Hellfire missiles at militant positions.
In another apparent move to maintain Sunni support, security forces arrested a controversial Shiite cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia. Sunnis have long accused the government of targeting only Sunni militant groups while blessing Shiite ones.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim told The Associated Press that the cleric, Wathiq al-Batat, was arrested in Baghdad on Wednesday. He gave no further details.
Al-Batat has been wanted by the government since last year. He formed the so-called Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites from attacks by Sunni extremists, and claims to have more than 1 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 Shiites 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 Shiite militias that targeted U.S. military bases months before their December 2011 withdrawal.
Iraq has seen an increased wave of sectarian violence since last April, when security forces broke up a Sunni protest in a bloody crackdown. Since then, militant attacks have swelled, and Shiite militias have grown more active. The United Nations said Wednesday that 2013 had Iraq's highest annual death toll since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, with 7,818 civilians killed last year. The U.N.'s figures for both civilians and security forces over the year totaled 8,868.
In other attacks Thursday, a bomb stuck onto a public minibus exploded in Baghdad's Shaab district, killing four people and wounding six. Three soldiers were killed and five were 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 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, the officials said. A bombing of an outdoor vegetable market killed five civilians and wounded nine others. In the other attack, two soldiers were killed and five others were wounded when their post came under gunfire. Three militants were killed in the exchange of fire.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
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