Iraqi security forces have arrested a controversial Shiite cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia, as the government and allied tribes battled Islamic militants who rose up in multiple Sunni-dominated cities.
Security forces and tribal fighters clashed with gunmen from al Qaida's Iraq branch a day after the militants launched a wave of attacks, fanning out to take over police stations and military posts in at least four cities and towns in western Anbar province. Militants set up checkpoints in streets and roved through several Anbar towns in security forces vehicles they had seized, waving al Qaida banners.
The heaviest fighting today came in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Baghdad, where two security officials said their forces were meeting particularly heavy resistance from al Qaida fighters. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Sectarian tension has been mounting in Iraq since last year. Minority Sunnis complain of discrimination against them at the hands of Shiite-led government.
That tension escalated to bloody clashes this week after two moves by the government: the arrest of a Sunni politician wanted on terrorism charges and the dismantling of a Sunni protest camp in the capital of overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province.
In a concession to Sunnis, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday pulled back troops from Anbar, allowing local police to take over security duties. That was a main demand of discontented Sunni politicians who see the army as a tool in the hand of Mr al-Maliki to target his rivals and consolidate power.
But soon after the pull-out, the militants launched the simultaneous assaults in several Anbar cities. Mr Al-Maliki quickly ordered military reinforcements back in and called on Sunni tribesmen - many of whom deeply oppose al Qaida - to help put down the militants.
The arrest of the Shiite cleric, Wathiq al-Batat, appeared to be aimed at ensuring Sunni support. Sunnis have long accused the government of targeting only Sunni militant groups while blessing Shiite ones.
Last year, Mr al-Batat - at the time a little-known cleric - announced the formation of the so-called Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites from attacks by Sunni extremists. He claims to have more than one million members.
He has been wanted by the government since last year. He took responsibility in November for firing six mortar shells at a region of Saudi Arabia bordering Iraq and Kuwait, describing it as retaliation for Saudi religious decrees that allegedly insult Shiites and encourage killing them. He also claimed responsibility for attacks on a camp hosting an Iranian opposition group.
Besides Fallujah, security forces and tribesmen battled militants in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi and nearby towns. They were able to take back several police stations in Ramadi, security officials said.
Iraq's al-Qaida branch has fed on Sunni discontent and on the civil war in neighbouring Syria, in which mostly Sunni rebels fight a government whose base is a Shiite offshoot sect. It has targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of co-ordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.
Outside of Anbar, militants carried out two attacks in Latifiyah, a mainly Sunni town 30 kms (20 miles) south of Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 14 others.
Yesterday, the United Nations said last year violence claimed the lives of 7,818 civilians in Iraq in 2013, the highest annual death toll in years. The UN's monthly figures for both civilians and security forces over the year totalled 8,868.
Later officials said a vehicle bomb targeting a street full of shoppers in a city north of Baghdad killed 16 people and wounded 31 others.
The pick-up truck laden blew up in Balad Ruz, 45 miles (70 kms) from Baghdad, destroying several shops.