BAGHDAD: Up to 45 people were killed in clashes between Iraqi security forces and followers of a radical sheikh in the holy Shiite city of Karbala Wednesday, security sources said, signaling divisions among Shiite factions as a Sunni insurgency rages.
The clashes erupted when police and army personnel tried to arrest Shiite Sheikh Mahmoud al-Sarkhi around midnight Tuesday in the southern city of Karbala, an Interior Ministry intelligence officer and a police witness told Reuters.
Sarkhi and his armed followers have clashed in the past with U.S. forces, Iraqi security forces and supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite authority in Iraq.
Security forces said they went to arrest Sarkhi after his supporters blocked roads and manned checkpoints around his district in the Shiite shrine city, home to the tomb of Imam Hussein, which millions of Shiite pilgrims flock to annually.
Sarkhi published a letter on his website earlier this week criticizing Sistani’s decree for Iraqis to fight alongside the security forces against Sunni militants.
Sistani issued his decree after the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) swept across parts of northern and western Iraq. The group, which rules swaths of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad in Iraq, has declared a “caliphate” to rule over the world’s Muslims.
Police and troops reinforced by five helicopter gunships surrounded the house but were prevented from entering by Sarkhi’s armed followers, the sources said, adding that five police officers and about 40 of Sarkhi’s supporters were killed.
The sources said that when security forces managed to break into the house after six hours of clashes, they found Sarkhi had escaped during the battle. Sarkhi’s supporters posted on the sheikh’s website a picture of an Iraqi military Humvee vehicle they said they had destroyed in the battle.
Clashes between ISIS and government forces flared elsewhere throughout the day.
Thousands of troops, backed by tanks, artillery and aerial cover, have been trying to control Tikrit for over a week, in a highly publicized operation appears to have hit difficulties. “They are advancing slowly because all of the houses and burned vehicles [en route to the city] have been rigged with explosives, and militants have deployed lots of roadside bombs and car bombs,” said Ahmad Abdullah Juburi, governor of the surrounding Salahuddin province.
Juburi said it would be days before security forces could make a concerted push into the city.
Medical sources and witnesses said at least 11 people, including women and children, had been killed when Iraqi helicopters attacked Shirqat, 300 km north of Baghdad.
Witnesses said the helicopters were targeting a municipal building where militants were sheltering, and that the airstrike also hit three nearby houses.
“We have received 11 bodies and 18 wounded from the helicopters’ bombardment. Some children are in critical condition,” said Hamid al-Jumaili, a doctor in Shirqat’s hospital.
The prime minister’s military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, made no specific mention of the incident but listed Shirqat as one of several locations where the air force had been active during the past 24 hours.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security spokesman also told reporters that loyalists had clashed with militants south of Baghdad.
Speaking in his weekly televised address, Maliki offered a general amnesty in a rare conciliatory move to undercut support for ISIS.
Maliki’s surprise move appeared to be a bid to split the broad alliance of jihadists, loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein and anti-government tribes that has captured large chunks of five provinces, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
“I announce the provision of amnesty for all tribes and all people who were involved in actions against the state” but who now “return to their senses,” Maliki said.
But he excluded those involved in killings, and it was not immediately clear how many people might be eligible.
Analysts have said some form of political reconciliation is needed to convince Sunnis angry with the Shiite-led government to turn against their co-religionists and jihadists.
The vast majority of Iraq’s Sunni minority do not actively support ISIS, but analysts say anger over perceived mistreatment by the authorities means they are less likely to cooperate with the security forces.
Maliki’s announcement came a day after an eagerly awaited opening to the Parliament descended into chaos and ended in disarray without a speaker being elected.
Sunnis and Kurds walked out of parliament’s first session Tuesday, complaining that Shiites had failed to nominate a prime minister; they see Maliki as the main obstacle to resolving the crisis and hope he will step aside.
Maliki, who is fighting for his political life, said he hoped parliament could form a new government in its next session.