Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned on Thursday of a return to “sectarian civil war” as 180 people were killed over three days and gunmen were given 48 hours to vacate a town they seized.
Al-Maliki called for people “to take the initiative, and not be silent about those who want to take the country back to sectarian civil war,” in remarks broadcast on state television.
The violence erupted on Tuesday when security forces moved in against anti-government protesters near the Sunni Muslim town of Hawijah in northern Iraq, sparking clashes that left 53 people dead.
A wave of subsequent unrest, much of it apparently revenge attacks for the Hawijah clashes, killed dozens more people and brought the toll by Thursday to 180 dead and 286 wounded.
The protest-related violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that broke out in Sunni areas of the Shiite-majority country more than four months ago.
The protesters have called for the resignation of Maliki, a Shiite, and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community, including with what they say are wrongful detentions and anti-terrorism charges.
On Thursday, attacks in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killed two Sahwa anti-al-Qaeda militiamen and two federal policemen, and wounded two more, police and a doctor said.
A roadside bomb in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, killed two patrolling soldiers, according to police and a medic, while a car bomb in the Shiite holy city of Najaf wounded one person, Iraqi interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said.
Security forces also killed four gunmen in Qara Tebbeh, a town in Diyala Province, while three were killed and two wounded, then arrested, in Kafak near the northern city of Mosul, army Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed said.
Three more gunmen were killed and three wounded when they attacked an army checkpoint at the entrance of Hawijah.
The toll from heavy fighting on Wednesday in Mosul also rose, with officers and a doctor saying a further 31 gunmen and four police were killed, bringing the total to 40.
Gunmen also fired at a helicopter south of Mosul on Thursday, causing minor damage, and it was able to return to base, police said.
Meanwhile, Majeed said that gunmen holding the town of Sulaiman Bek in Salaheddin Province have 48 hours to disperse or face attack.
The gunmen swarmed into the predominantly Turkmen Sunni town on Wednesday after deadly clashes with the security forces, who pulled back in the face of the offensive as residents fled.
Majeed said intelligence information indicated there were about 175 gunmen in Sulaiman Bek — 25 allegedly from al-Qaeda, and 150 from the Naqshbandiya Army, another Sunni militant group.
The military said the operation in Hawijah that sparked the clashes was aimed at the Naqshbandiya Army, which it said had infiltrated the ranks of the anti-government protesters.
Two leaders of the Hawijah protest said on Thursday they would form a wing of the Naqshbandiya Army in response to Tuesday’s killings.
“We in the Uprising of the Free People of Iraq announced our full loyalty to the [Naqshbandiya Army], so we can be an armed wing related to it, working on cleaning Iraq from Safavid militias,” protest spokesman Hamed al-Juburi said.
Safavid is a pejorative word for Shiites.
“We will take revenge for the massacre of Hawijah,” he said.