Iraq’s army deployed reinforcements around Sulaiman Bek and was preparing yesterday to move into the northern town, a day after it was seized by a group of gunmen, official sources said.
Also yesterday, a spokesman for now-dispersed protesters near the town of Hawijah in northern Iraq, where the latest wave of violence began on Tuesday, vowed to seek revenge for a “massacre” at the protest site, where clashes killed 53 people.
The unidentified gunmen swarmed into Sulaiman Bek on Wednesday after deadly fighting with the security forces, who pulled back in the face of the offensive as residents fled.
“We withdrew tactically so we can work on clearing the area completely, after we knew that the residents had left,” a high-ranking army officer said.
“We will clean the region corner by corner, and we will not allow any attack against the safety of citizens,” the officer said.
Shalal Abdul Baban, a local administrative official responsible for the area, said that gunmen were still in complete control of the town, but that the army was deploying reinforcements on its outskirts.
The attack on Sulaiman Bek came amid a wave of violence, much of it clashes and attacks involving security forces, protesters and their supporters, that has left more than 120 people dead.
The violence began on Tuesday, when security forces moved in against anti-government protesters near the town of Hawijah.
The military said the operation was aimed at the Naqshbandiya Army, a band of Sunni militants it said had infiltrated the ranks of the anti-government protesters.
The deadly fighting near Hawijah sparked a wave of revenge attacks in five Sunni-majority provinces that continued into Wednesday, and included heavy fighting in Salaheddin Province that saw the gunmen take Sulaiman Bek.
Two leaders of the Hawijah protest said yesterday 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, using a pejorative word for Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraqis.
“We will take revenge for the massacre of Hawijah,” he said.
“After they burned our tents and broke into our sit-in, we decided to join the [Naqshbandiya Army] as a military wing,” protest organizer Abdulmalik al-Juburi said.
The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that erupted in Sunni Muslim areas of the Shiite-majority country more than four months ago.
The Sunni protesters have called for the resignation of Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and railed against the alleged targeting of their community by the authorities.
A police lieutenant colonel was shot dead and another policeman wounded south of Tuz Khurmatu, a police colonel and a doctor said.
In other violence apparently in revenge for Tuesday’s clashes, gunmen attacked a Sahwa anti-Qaeda militia checkpoint in Khales, northeast of Baghdad. They killed four militiamen and wounded a fifth, a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor said.
Heavy fighting in Mosul in north Iraq that lasted for hours on Wednesday left one policeman dead, police said.
Gunmen also killed a soldier and wounded a policeman in Mosul, while a soldier was hurt in another shooting to its south, according to police and a doctor said.
Three gunmen were also killed in the city.
Apparently unrelated violence, including a car bomb in Baghdad and attacks in three other areas, killed at least 11 people and wounded 33, officials said.