Last updated: 14 February, 2014

Iraq forces battle to retake town from militants

Iraqi forces fought Friday to retake part of a northern town and nearby areas seized by gunmen, killing over a dozen militants and at least temporarily regaining territory, officials said.

The Thursday takeover of part of Sulaiman Bek and nearby villages in Salaheddin province came as gunmen hold a major city and part of another in the western province of Anbar, in a stand-off that has lasted weeks.

Local official Talib al-Bayati told AFP that security forces backed by tanks and other armour began attacking militant-held areas on Friday morning.

Engineers moved in first to search for bombs, he said, adding that security forces had killed 17 militants in the area since Thursday.

Bayati later said that security forces had succeeded in retaking the militant-held areas, but then withdrew for unknown reasons.

It was not immediately clear whether the situation was resolved, or if the withdrawal would allow militants to move back in.

Army Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi meanwhile said that security forces were able to regain control of the Sulaiman Bek area after heavy fighting.

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.

Gunmen killed four police near the city of Tikrit on Friday, while security forces killed six militants in the northern province of Kirkuk, officials said.

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 Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line ahead of a general election scheduled for April.