Killing Iraqi soldiers is an attack against the state, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Friday after masked gunmen killed four soldiers in the Sunni stronghold province of Anbar.
Earlier on Saturday, gunmen killed five army intelligence soldiers in two attacks west of Baghdad while others shot dead five anti-Qaeda militiamen north of the Iraqi capital, police and doctors said.
One group of soldiers were driving near the site of a long-running anti-government protest when they were stopped by gunmen. They shot one of the gunmen, wounding him, and clashes broke out in which four of the soldiers were killed and another wounded, a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor told AFP.
Maliki also urged tribal sheikhs in the country to confront any attempt to spread sectarianism in the country after he warned that sectarian strife is returning to Iraq from elsewhere in the region, in a likely reference to war-torn Syria, whose Sunnis feel marginalized by minority Allawites.
Sectarian strife “came back to Iraq because it began in another place in this region,” Maliki said in televised remarks, a reference to Sunni-Shiite violence that peaked in 2006 and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
However, there are increasing reports that Sunnis are describing Maliki’s rule as “sectarian.”
A Sheikh from Anbar, Ali Hatem, told Al Arabiya on Saturday that the protesters were against the “sectarian” government, adding that Maliki was increasing his grip on power.
“Maliki’s administration is the one that opened the doors for sectarianism,” he said, adding “the protesters have nothing to do with the killing of the soldiers, and the incident had happened far away from the protest square.”
Tribes from Anbar are expected to declare their stance regarding the killing of four soldiers by gunmen in the protest square. Also, police in Anbar have given a 24-hour ultimatum for the killers of the Iraqi soldiers to turn themselves in.
Iraqis in the mainly Sunni-dominated provinces are calling for the ouster of Maliki and has accused the country’s army to be “sectarian” one. Late 2012, protests emerged in Anbar to later influence other Sunni provinces, mainly to denounce random arrests of people under terrorism charges.
Some Sunnis are also calling for the creation of a federal region for them to curtail influence of the central government.
Maliki, who deployed his troops amid the rising tensions in the protesting Sunni provinces, rejected a pullout.
Tensions spiked earlier this week when fighting broke out in the northern town of Hawija during a security crackdown on a protest encampment. That provoked a series of clashes nationwide that left more than 170 people dead over the past five days, the Associated Press reported.
Gunmen also opened fire on a checkpoint manned by government-allied Sunni fighters, killing five of them, near the city of Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
The militiamen, known as Sahwa, are among those who joined forces with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaeda during the Iraq war. Since then, the group has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider its members to be traitors.
Maliki’s statement came as residents of a number of Sunni cities in Iraq have announced on Thursday the formation of “military forces” to counter attack the Iraqi army and its crackdown against protesters calling for Maliki – a Shiite – to step down, Al Arabiya’s correspondent said
The country was torn by Sunni-Shiite fighting in 2007-2008 in which thousands of people were killed each month.
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