An attack on a Sunni camp triggered series of clashes. At least 42 people were killed.
BAGHDAD – Gun battles erupted in cities with Sunni majorities across Iraq on Tuesday after security forces from the Shiite-led government stormed a Sunni protest encampment in a village near the northern city of Kirkuk. The clashes left dozens dead and wounded, and raised fears that the sectarian civil war that is roiling Syria might spill into Iraq.
The fiercest fighting was at the encampment in the town of Hawija, where Sunni gunmen fought government forces throughout the day. At least 42 people were killed, 39 of them civilians, and more than 100 were wounded.
As evening fell, sporadic fighting continued there and in Ramadi in the Sunni homeland of Anbar Province, where protesters set fire to two military vehicles and tribal sheiks called on young men to take up arms against the government.
The fighting represented the deadliest turn yet in a Sunni-led protest movement against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. By the end of the day, the country was on edge as Sunni tribesmen mobilized, declaring jihad, or holy war. Adding to the tensions, an influential Iraqi religious leader who lives in Amman, Sheik Abdul Malik al-Saadi, seemed to endorse the call to arms by saying, “Self-defense has become a legitimate and legal duty.”
By nightfall, however, Iraq’s leaders on both sides of the sectarian divide scrambled to calm the situation. After first defending the fighting, Al-Maliki’s government promised to compensate victims, provide medical treatment to the wounded and hold military leaders accountable for mistakes.
Osama Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Parliament, said, “What happened this morning is a disaster by any measure.” He added that the fighting “has opened the door to great strife.”
Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis fought a brutal civil war from 2005 to 2007, and while violence has declined, there has never been a full reconciliation. The civil war in Syria, which pits a Sunni-led rebellion against a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has hardened differences here, as each sect takes sides.
The fiercest fighting group in Syria, Jabhet al-Nusra, has been fostered by Al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group. Iraq’s government has lined up on the side of the Syrian government, allowing its territory to be a corridor for the supply of weapons — mainly from Iran — to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The clashes reverberated across the country in seething Sunni communities, where protesters have set up encampments like those established in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.
Sunni mosques were bombed in the mixed Baghdad neighborhood of Dora and the volatile city of Diyala, killing 10 people. In Tikrit, the authorities imposed a curfew after gunmen twice attacked security forces.
In Fallujah, where clashes between the army and protesters in January killed at least seven protesters, thousands took to the streets, demanding that the international community stop what they described as the “massacres of the government.” Near Hawija, Sunni gunmen briefly took control of some government checkpoints.
Protest leaders in other Sunni cities vowed solidarity with their brethren in Hawija. “The demonstrators in Mosul left the sit-in area to take up arms in support of demonstrators in Hawija and take revenge for them,” said Salim al-Jabouri, a spokesman for the Sunni movement there.
In Baghdad, security forces blockaded the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Adhamiya, allowing entry only to those who proved they were residents. Two Sunni government ministers said they had resigned their positions, and leaders of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers, announced that they were boycotting Parliament.
The violence occurred days after Iraq held local elections, which were largely peaceful and conducted under extraordinary security. The elections were postponed, however, in two largely Sunni provinces, Anbar and Nineveh, and were never scheduled in Kirkuk, which is rich in oil and disputed by Arabs and Kurds.