BAGHDAD (AP) — Members of al-Qaida's branch in Iraq handed out pamphlets Thursday urging those in Fallujah to take up arms and back the militants in their weekslong fight against government troops as clashes raged on around the city, residents said Thursday.
While the government battled militants west of Baghdad, police outside the capital found the bullet-ridden bodies of 14 Sunni men, earlier abducted from a funeral by gunmen wearing military uniforms. It was a grim reminder of similar slayings that accompanied the worst days of sectarian killings that swept the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Since late last month, Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribesmen have been fighting to recapture key territories overran by al-Qaida militants in the country's Sunni-dominated Anbar province, including its two main cities — Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.
Speaking to The Associated Press by telephone, Fallujah residents said militants distributed pamphlets with the emblem of the group — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — at main city intersections Thursday and the day before.
The pamphlets called on Fallujah residents to join the fight alongside the al-Qaida fighters, give money or open their homes as shelters, the residents said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
Another pamphlet announced that al-Qaida would form a Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that would look into the disputes among Fallujah residents, the residents said.
Meanwhile, clashes between Iraqi security forces and al-Qaida militants raged in two neighborhoods in Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, from late Wednesday night to Thursday morning, the residents said.
A medical official said the city hospital received the bodies of seven men killed in the fighting and that 13 were wounded. He was unable to provide a breakdown of how many of the dead were militants and how many might have been civilians caught up in the clashes.
Iraqi state television said security forces and allied tribal fighters clashed inside and around the city of Ramadi on Thursday, retaking several areas captured earlier by al-Qaida fighters. No more details were given.
Two senior military officials said that one soldier was killed and three others were wounded by sniper fire during a clash between soldiers and militants in the village of al-Bubali, between Fallujah and Ramadi. The officials said that the militants have booby-trapped some houses in the village to slow the advance of the army troops.
The unrest in Anbar started after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the dismantling of an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi. To alleviate the tension, the government pulled the army back from the cities, allowing militants to seize control.
Meanwhile, police found the corpses of 14 men Thursday afternoon in an orchard near the Sunni-dominated town of Mishahda. Officials said the corpses were shot in different parts of the body.
Authorities said gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped the men from a funeral Wednesday night. Police said nine men from the same family are among the dead. Medical officials confirmed receiving the bodies.
It wasn't clear who rounded up and killed the men. Shiite militiamen could be seeking revenge for the ongoing Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiite neighborhoods. Militants with al-Qaida's local branch target Sunnis in attacks as well. Military uniforms remain easy to get ahold of throughout the country.
A similar slaying happened in November, when police found the bodies of 18 Sunnis just south of Baghdad. They recall the darkest days after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, paving the way for long-repressed majority Shiites to seize power.
Iranian-backed Shiite death squads roamed Baghdad from 2006-2008, killing Sunnis by the dozens and dumping their often mutilated bodies on the streets or in the river in retaliation for the devastating bombings and suicide attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents. Sunnis also formed their own death squads for revenge killings.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, a bomb exploded in an outdoor market in the eastern suburb of Nahrawan, killing three civilians and wounding six, a police officer said. Another bomb went off in a commercial area of Baghdad's western Ghazaliyah neighborhood, killing two civilians and wounding nine, he said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
Violence has escalated in Iraq over the past year. Iraq saw the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the country's sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.