BAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni militants who have been sweeping through northern Iraq shifted their focus to Anbar province, taking two strategic towns in the volatile region west of Baghdad. Heavily armed Shiite rivals, meanwhile, paraded in several cities in a show of force that underlines risks that the conflict could be headed toward a sectarian showdown.
A guide to the events that unfolded Saturday:
Spearheaded by al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Sunni fighters took the town of Qaim on the Syrian border after a daylong battle Friday, while Rawah along the Euphrates River fell on Saturday. The gains dealt another blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied militants who have seized large swaths of the country's north, including the second-largest city of Mosul. The fall of Qaim and its border crossing, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Baghdad, came as al-Maliki faces mounting pressure to form an inclusive government or step aside, with both a top Shiite cleric and the White House strongly hinting he is in part to blame for the worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2011. Army and police forces pulled out of Rawah, some 175 miles (275 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, after the militants took control and ransacked government offices in the town.
SHIITE MILITIAMEN ON PARADE
In Baghdad, about 20,000 men, many in combat gear, marched through the Sadr City district with assault rifles, machine guns, multiple rocket launchers, field artillery and missiles. Similar parades took place in the southern cities of Amarah and Basra. The parades were staged by followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led a powerful militia that battled U.S. troops and was blamed for some of the mass killing of Sunni civilians during the sectarian bloodletting that peaked in 2006 and 2007. Last week, thousands of Shiites from Baghdad and across southern Iraq answered an urgent call to arms by the nation's top Shiite cleric, joining security forces to fight the militants who now imperil a city with a much-revered religious shrine.
KILLINGS IN BAGHDAD
Two separate explosions killed five people and wounded 21 in the Iraqi capital, while in an incident harkening back to the peak days of sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007, two bodies, presumably of Sunnis, were found riddled with bullets in the city's Shiite district of Zafaraniyah.