Iraq forces battle to retake town from militants
The violence drew security forces away from a nearby highway, where several dozen militants set up a checkpoint
Iraqi forces fought on Friday to retake part of a northern town and nearby areas seized by gunmen, the latest instance of authorities losing ground to militants, an official said.
The Thursday takeover of part of Sulaiman Bek and nearby villages in Salaheddin province came as gunmen control all of one major city and part of another in the western province of Anbar, in a stand-off that has lasted for weeks.
Local official Talib al-Bayati told AFP that security forces backed by tanks and other armor began attacking militant-held areas on Friday morning.
Engineers moved in first to search for bombs, he said.
Clashes and a helicopter strike in the area have killed 17 militants since Thursday, Bayati said.
Last July, some 150 militants carried out a coordinated operation in the Sulaiman Bek area, attacking with mortar rounds, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
The violence drew security forces away from a nearby highway, where several dozen militants set up a checkpoint and executed 14 Shiite Muslim truck drivers.
Sulaiman Bek was also briefly seized by militants in late April last year.
Iraqi authorities face a far more serious problem in Anbar province, where gunmen have held all of the city of Fallujah and parts of provincial capital Ramadi for weeks.
Violence in the country has reached a level not seen since 2008, when Iraq was just emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings.
Foreign leaders have urged the Shiite-led government to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni Arab minority to undercut support for militants.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a hard line ahead of a general election scheduled for April.