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Iraq prime minister warns of sectarian war as 148 killed

BAGHDAD--Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned on Thursday of attempts to return Iraq to “sectarian civil war,” with 148 people having died in three days of violence and as troops prepared to storm a town held by gunmen.

Maliki called on everyone worried about Iraq's future “to take the initiative, and not be silent about those who want to take the country back to sectarian civil war,” in remarks broadcast on state television.

The violence began on Tuesday, when security forces moved in against anti-government protesters near the Sunni Muslim town of Hawija in northern Iraq, sparking clashes that left 53 people dead.

A wave of subsequent unrest, much of it apparently revenge attacks for the Hawija clashes, killed dozens more people, and brought the toll by Thursday to 148 dead and 280 wounded.

The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that erupted in Sunni areas of the Shiite-majority country more than four months ago.

The protesters have called for the resignation of Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community.

On Thursday, attacks in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killed two Sahwa anti-Qaida militiamen, two federal policemen, and wounded two more, a police captain and a doctor said.

And a roadside bomb against an army patrol in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, killed two soldiers, according to a police officer and a doctor.

The toll from heavy fighting on Wednesday in the north Iraq city of Mosul also rose, with police and a doctor saying a further 10 gunmen and four police were killed, bringing the total to 19.

Meanwhile, the army deployed reinforcements around Sulaiman Bek, and was preparing to storm the Salaheddin provincial town, a day after it was seized by a group of unidentified gunmen, officials said.

The gunmen swarmed into the predominantly Turkmen Sunni town after deadly fighting with the security forces, who pulled back in the face of the offensive as residents fled.

“We withdrew tactically so we can work on clearing the area completely, after we knew that the residents had left,” a high-ranking army officer told AFP.

The military said the operation in Hawijah that sparked the clashes was aimed at the Naqshbandiya Army, a band of Sunni militants it said had infiltrated the ranks of the anti-government protesters.

Two leaders of the Hawijah protest said on Thursday they would form a wing of the Naqshbandiya Army in response to Tuesday's killings.

“We will take revenge for the massacre of Hawija,” protest spokesman Hamed al-Juburi said.

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