Iraqi police officers inspect the site of a bomb attack in the southern city… (Khider Abbas / European…)
BEIRUT — At least 41 people died Thursday on the third straight day of pitched fighting between Iraqi security forces and Sunni Arabs, as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki warned the country was in crisis.
The national police battled back Sunni fighters in the northern city of Mosul, long a bastion of the insurgency, where individuals took up arms after security forces opened fire early Tuesday on an encampment of Sunni protesters in the city of Hawija in Kirkuk province.
The violence this week ended four months of largely peaceful Sunni protests centered on the group’s alleged mistreatment by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government. Confrontations occurred across Sunni regions of Iraq.
At least 31 Sunni gunmen were killed in Mosul on Thursday, said Mehdi Sabah Gharrawi, a national police commander. Ten police officers also were killed, military sources said. The sides had been fighting for control of four neighborhoods in east Mosul for three days, and gunmen held a police station before being repelled.
The death toll around the country reached as high as 179 by some accounts, with authorities saying 50 people died in Hawija and other parts of Kirkuk province Tuesday.
Fighting also occurred elsewhere as gunmen were reported to control the town of Suleiman Beg in the northern province of Salahuddin, where helicopters fired on Sunni gunmen Wednesday.
In Anbar province, Sunni tribes were mobilizing Thursday to defend their cities against possible attacks by Iraqi security forces. They positioned gunmen and paraded in some of their cities, vowing to stop the military from entering their communities. Clashes were reported outside the city of Fallouja on Thursday night.
Maliki, whose government is opposed by the protesters and blamed for allegedly provoking violence, appeared on television and acknowledged mistakes had been made by the security forces since Tuesday.
“We all have to shoulder responsibility after what happened in Hawija and what's going on today in Suleiman Beg and other areas,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “If [sectarian] conflict erupts, there will be no winner or loser. All will lose, whether in southern or northern or western or eastern Iraq.”
Separately, preliminary results were announced for Saturday’s provincial elections. Maliki’s bloc reportedly appeared likely to win eight of 12 voting provinces, including Baghdad and Basra. The vote drew a low turnout of 50%, reflecting the population’s disenchantment with the leaders.
Maliki had ordered a delay for a vote in the Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, both of which have risen up violently since Tuesday. An election date has yet to be finalized.
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Two special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.