Civilians inspect the aftermath of a car bomb attack in the Husseiniyah… (Hadi Mizban / Associated…)
Gunmen reportedly overtook a town north of Baghdad as battles continued to rage Thursday between Iraqi government forces and Sunni fighters.
The violence began Tuesday after security forces stormed a Sunni Muslim protest encampment in Hawija, spurring clashes and revenge attacks that spread throughout Sunni areas. More than 100 people have reportedly lost their lives over the past three days.
Protests had simmered for months ahead of the Hawija clashes, as Sunni demonstrators charged that they had been marginalized and mistreated by the Shiite Muslim-dominated government. Bombings, widely believed to be the work of Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, have continued to rattle the country.
The new unrest has left analysts fearful of an outright uprising. Two Sunni government minister quit their posts this week, bringing the total number of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned since March to four, according to the Agence France-Presse.
“It’s disturbing,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior vice president at the international consulting firm Mantid International. “The violence is of a different character than we’ve seen before.”
Though the Iraqi government has taken actions that infuriated Sunnis before, “what is strikingly different this time is the violent response by a number of Sunnis and the fact that we’re hearing that groups are arming themselves for future confrontation,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday that gunmen seized the police station and other government buildings in Suleiman Beg, the Associated Press reported. People were sent fleeing from the area Wednesday as security forces traded fire with gunmen.
In an address broadcast on state television, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki pleaded for calm and unity, urging Iraqis to resist extremists and steer clear of sectarian rifts.
If conflict breaks out, “all will lose,” Maliki said, according to Al Jazeera.
Analysts believe the pending results of recent provincial elections could play a crucial role in whether the country descends deeper into violence. If allies of Maliki win out at the polls, more Sunnis may be convinced there is little to gain from peaceful political dialogue, Pollack said.
If Sunnis score at least some election victories, “various Sunni leaders afraid of the return to civil war could then point to it and say, 'Let’s wait for national elections and not rush to violence.’”
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