Baghdad: Gunmen took control of the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek on Wednesday after fighting with security forces, part of a bloody two days of violence that killed 128 people and wounded 269, officials said.
Most of the casualties -- 102 dead and 195 wounded -- came from clashes and attacks involving security forces, protesters and their supporters, which have sent tensions in Iraq soaring.
The violence, which began with clashes on Tuesday at a protest site in northern Iraq after security forces moved in, is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that erupted in Sunni Muslim areas of the Shi’ite-majority country more than four months ago.
The Sunni protesters have called for the resignation of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and railed against the alleged targeting of their community by the authorities.
On Wednesday, five soldiers and seven gunmen were killed and 63 people, including 20 soldiers, wounded in fighting in the Sulaiman Bek area in Salaheddin province, north of Baghdad, security officers and an official said.
The gunmen, apparently motivated by revenge for the protest clashes on Tuesday, eventually took control of the town.
Security forces have completely withdrawn from the area, which is now under the control of the gunmen, Shalal Abdul Baban, a local administrative official responsible for the area, told a news agency.
Niyazi Maamar Oghlu, a member of the provincial council in Salaheddin province, also said authorities had lost control of the town.
Both officials said that a strategic road between Baghdad and Tuz Khurmatu, a town to the north of Sulaiman Bek, had been cut.
A police lieutenant colonel was shot dead and another policeman wounded south of Tuz Khurmatu, a police colonel and a doctor said.
In other violence apparently in revenge for Tuesday`s clashes, gunmen attacked a Sahwa anti-Qaeda militia checkpoint in Khales, northeast of Baghdad. They killed four militiamen and wounded a fifth, a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor said.
Heavy fighting in Mosul in north Iraq that lasted for hours on Wednesday left one policeman dead, police said.
Gunmen also killed a soldier and wounded a policeman in Mosul, while a soldier was hurt in another shooting to its south, according to police and a doctor said.
Three gunmen were also killed in the city.
Apparently unrelated violence, including a car bomb in Baghdad and attacks in three other areas, killed at least 11 people and wounded 33, officials said.
The trouble began early on Tuesday when clashes broke out after security forces moved into an area near Hawijah in northern Iraq, where protests have been held since January.
The initial fighting killed 53 people, while a series of revenge attacks left another 27 dead on Tuesday, and 15 more were killed in apparently unrelated unrest the same day.
Two Sunni ministers quit in the wake of the initial violence on Tuesday, bringing to four the number of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned since March 01.
Abdulghafur al-Samarraie and Saleh al-Haidari, top clerics who respectively head the Sunni and Shi’ite religious endowments, held a joint news conference warning against sectarian strife and calling for politicians to meet on Friday.
Samarraie warned of "malicious plans... with the goal of taking the country towards sectarian conflict", and said he and Haidari agreed "to move quickly to extinguish the strife and stop the conspiracy".
On Wednesday, mourners buried dozens of people killed the day before.
Hundreds of mourners walked on the main road past the provincial council building in Kirkuk city alongside vehicles carrying 34 coffins.
They chanted "We sacrifice for you, Iraq" and "We will take revenge for the martyrs of Hawijah", continuing on to Hawijah, to the west of the city, where the dead were buried.
"What happened was a massacre, and the situation is catastrophic and dangerous, and we should work on easing the tension," said Kirkuk Deputy Governor Rakan Said.
A protest organiser and a doctor said on Wednesday that two soldiers who were kidnapped by demonstrators the day before near Ramadi, west of Baghdad, had been released.
Abdulrazzaq al-Shammari also said demonstrators were demanding that soldiers withdraw from all cities in Anbar province, where Ramadi is located, and stay in their main bases.