BAGHDAD — The violent struggle over Iraq on Saturday consumed cities and towns widely spread over the north and west of the country, with Sunni militants and the Iraqi army claiming gains.
An Iraqi security official and witnesses, meanwhile, said a gunbattle near Kirkuk had broken out between two of the most powerful Sunni militant groups. The battle, they said, pitted the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is leading the battle with the Shiite-dominated government, against its Baathist allies and left 17 dead, according to the official.
In Baghdad, the day’s violence had a more familiar sectarian cast. A bomb exploded in a market in a predominantly Shiite area, killing four shoppers. Three hours later, the bodies of two men were found dumped nearby, handcuffed and shot to death. The victims were most likely Sunnis, since the area is controlled by Shiite militiamen.
Meanwhile, thousands of heavily armed Shiite militia fighters — eager to take on the Sunni insurgents — marched through Iraqi cities in military-style parades on streets where many of them battled U.S. forces a half-decade ago.
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Elsewhere, the battles were between government supporters and the Sunni militants trying to press forward with their offensive.
In the insurgent-held city of Tikrit, in Salahuddin province, the morgue at the hospital reported it had received 84 bodies of policemen, soldiers and government employees who had been executed. Seven had been beheaded, according to an official there who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In western Anbar province, two more towns fell to the main Sunni group — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — near the border town of Qaim, which fell to the rebels Friday.
A local government leader, Muthana al-Rawi, said the two towns taken Saturday, Rawah and Anah, were captured after troops and police officers fled Qaim and “sleeper cells of the militants showed up to fill the gap and take control.”
The capture of Rawah and Anah appeared to be part of a march toward a key dam in the city of Haditha that was built in 1986 and has a power station that produces some 1,000 megawatts. Destruction of the dam would adversely impact the country’s electrical grid and cause major flooding.
Iraqi military officials said more than 2,000 troops were sent to the site of the dam to protect it. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Witnesses in the border town of Al Waleed said the Syrian air force had bombed Islamic State troops on the Iraq side who were trying to capture it as well.
If Al Waleed fell, that would leave the Iraqi government without control of a single border crossing to Syria and would deal a blow to both Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has been fighting the Syrian government for months, and a loss of control over the border would allow the militants to move fighters and equipment more freely between the two countries.
The Islamic State is trying to create an Islamic caliphate in a vast area of both countries, wiping out the border in between.
Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell to the militants June 10, and in the next three days they pushed to within about 60 miles of Baghdad, conquering most of the provinces of Nineveh and Salahuddin, as well as much of Diyala province. In the past week, however, they appear to have concentrated on consolidating their gains, attacking cities and towns on the margin of the territory they overran, but not advancing closer to Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has struggled to push back against the insurgent forces. The prime minister, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after recent parliamentary elections, also has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Shiite volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces.
The parades in Baghdad and other cities in the mainly Shiite south revealed the depth and diversity of the militia arsenal, from field artillery and missiles to multiple rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, adding a new layer to mounting evidence that Iraq is inching closer to a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.
In Baghdad, about 20,000 militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marched through the sprawling Shiite Sadr City district, which saw some of the worst fighting between Shiite militias and U.S. troops before a cease-fire was reached in 2008. Similar parades took place in the southern cities of Amarrah and Basra, both strongholds of al-Sadr supporters.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.