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Sunni fighters take over town in northern Iraq after clashes with government forces

Insurgents seized western parts of the city after using a mosque loud speaker to call for Sunni to join the fight

Sunni fighters have taken over a town in northern Iraq as armed conflict escalates between government forces and the Sunni Arab minority across the country. At least 128 people have died since the Iraqi army opened fire at Sunni protesters on Tuesday.

Gunmen seized the town of Suleiman Beg 150 miles north of Baghdad, capturing the police station and other government buildings which are now besieged by government troops. There has also been fierce fighting in the Sunni majority city of Mosul where 15 Iraqi policemen and 31 Sunni militants were killed today. Earlier, the insurgents had seized western parts of the city after using a mosque loud speaker to call for Sunni to join the fight. They were later reported to have been driven back, but were holding a police station with five hostages. Streets in the city are empty as people stay at home to avoid the violence. 

Iraq is teetering on the edge of a return to a sectarian civil war between the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni Arabs. Making up a fifth of the population, they have been protesting for the last four months against discrimination and persecution. They demand the resignation of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki whose television appeal for calm is likely to be ignored. Two Sunni ministers have resigned in protest at the violent break up by the army of a sit-in in the town of Hawijah three days ago in which at lest 30 people were killed.

Outrage among the Sunni Arabs may now be uncontrollable and is spreading all five provinces where they are the largest community. “This is the deepest and most dangerous crisis…since 1921,” the former national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told the AFP, referring to the year of the creation of the Iraqi state. He said that the present situation “could lead to a sectarian conflict, and then division.” Many Iraqi leaders have been predicting that Mr Maliki and his advisers have been under-estimating the significance of the Sunni protest movement.

The Sunni see themselves as having been reduced to second class citizens since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 when the Shia and Kurds became the dominant communities. The Sunni lost jobs in the army and security forces and fear being arrested and tortured after being denounced by anonymous informers under the much-criticised anti-terrorism law.