KIRKUK: Iraqi security forces began moving back into a northern town on Friday after gunmen who seized it withdrew, as the death toll from four days of violence reached 190, officials said.
The gunmen pulled out of Sulaiman Bek under a deal worked out by tribal leaders and government officials, local official Shalal Abdul Baban and municipal council deputy chief Ahmed Aziz said.
They had swarmed into the predominantly Sunni Turkmen town on Wednesday after deadly clashes with the security forces, who pulled back as residents fled.
Abdul Baban said that helicopter fire wounded six people on the roof of a house in the town early on Friday.
The gunmen’s seizure of the town came amid a surge of violence which began on Tuesday when security forces moved in against anti-government protesters near the Sunni Arab northern town of Hawijah.
The operation sparked clashes that left 53 people dead.
Dozens more were killed in subsequent unrest, much but not all of it linked to Tuesday’s clashes, bringing the death toll to 190 by Friday.
The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that broke out in Sunni areas of the Shiite-majority country more than four months ago.
The protesters have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community.
Army Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed told AFP on Thursday that the gunmen in Sulaiman Bek had been given 48 hours to withdraw or face attack.
Majeed said at the time that intelligence information indicated there were about 175 gunmen in the town — 25 allegedly from Al-Qaeda, and 150 from the Naqshbandiya Army, another Sunni militant group.
Seven gunmen died carrying out three separate attacks on security forces south of the northern city of Kirkuk on Friday, a high-ranking army officer and a medical source said.
Gunmen also killed a soldier and wounded two police in an attack on a checkpoint in Al-Sharqat, north of the capital, late on Thursday, a police colonel and a doctor said.
And three hours of fighting in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killed three federal police and wounded six late on Thursday, police Lieutenant colonel Yasir Hamid al-Jumaili and a doctor said.
The clashes saw gunmen take control of three checkpoints on the outskirts of the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city after they were abandoned by federal police, Jumaili said.
They then turned the checkpoints over to local police, who returned them to federal police on Friday, he said.
On Wednesday, Abdulghafur al-Samarraie and Saleh al-Haidari, leading clerics who respectively head the Sunni and Shiite religious endowments, held a joint news conference in which they warned against sectarian strife and called for top politicians to meet at a Baghdad mosque on Friday.
The meeting at the Umm al-Qura mosque was scheduled for 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Friday, but it was not clear who would attend.Maliki himself warned of a return to “sectarian civil war” in remarks broadcast on state television on Thursday