Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday pointed to the civil war in Syria for the return of sectarian strife to Iraq, as Kurdish forces deploying near a disputed northern city further raised tensions.
Maliki also called on anti-government protesters to expel “criminals” who targeted Iraqi forces, and the head of the Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militia threatened war if militants who killed soldiers were not handed over.
More than 215 people have been killed in five days of bloody violence that began with clashes between security forces and protesters in the north on Tuesday and have sent tensions soaring.
Sectarian strife “came back to Iraq, because it began in another place in this region,” Maliki said in televised remarks, in an apparent reference to Syria.
The civil war in neighbouring Syria pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, has killed more than 70,000 people.
Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in Iraq, which peaked in 2006 and 2006, killed tens of thousands.
“Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a licence to cross from a country to another, because if it begins in a place, it will move to another place,” Maliki said.
“Strife is knocking on the doors of everyone, and no one will survive if it enters, because there is a wind behind it, and money, and plans,” he added.
A wave of violence began on Tuesday when security forces moved against Sunni anti-government protesters near the northern Sunni Arab town of Hawijah, sparking clashes that killed 53 people.
Subsequent unrest, much of it apparently linked to the Hawijah clashes, killed dozens more and brought the death toll to more than 215 on Saturday.
Kurdish peshmerga security forces have deployed near the northern city of Kirkuk, part of a swathe of territory that the autonomous Kurdistan region wants to incorporate over Baghdad’s strong objections.
“After consultations with the governor of Kirkuk, there has been a decision for peshmerga forces to fill the vacuums in general, and especially around the city of Kirkuk,” Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga ministry, said in a statement.
Yawar said the deployments were aimed at combating militants and protecting civilians, but a high-ranking Iraqi army officer said soldiers had been put on alert, and that “the army sees the move of the peshmerga as a (political) manoeuvre and not to fill any vacuum.”
Maliki, meanwhile, called in a statement for anti-government protesters to “expel the criminals who targeted Iraqi army and police forces,” after five soldiers were killed near a protest site.
And Iraqiya state television quoted Sahwa chief Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan as saying that if those who have killed soldiers are not handed over, “the Sahwa will take the requested procedures and do what it did in 2006.”
Sahwa militiamen fought pitched battles against Sunni militants from 2006, helping to turn the tide of the Iraq war.
On Saturday, gunmen killed five soldiers from army intelligence and wounded a sixth near the site of a long-running anti-government protest close to Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and a gunman was also wounded, security and medical sources said.
A sniper also killed a federal policeman in Ramadi.
The killings came after a Sunni cleric, Sheikh Hamed al-Kubaisi, called in a sermon at the protest site on Friday for the creation of an army to defend Sunnis.
Gunmen also killed five Sahwa militiamen on Saturday in an attack on a checkpoint south of Tikrit, police and a doctor said.
The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that broke out in Sunni areas of Shiite-majority Iraq more than four months ago.
The Sunni protesters have called for Maliki’s resignation and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community, including what they say are wrongful detentions and accusations of involvement in terrorism.