Iraqi militants target Kurds amid surge in sectarian killings (+video)

Sunni militants have stepped up attacks in central and northern Iraq, raising fears of a wider conflict. Today's suicide bombing in Diyala province killed at least 18 people. 

By , Staff Writer

A suicide bomber has killed at least 18 people at a Kurdish political party office in Diyala province, the latest in a string of attacks by a Sunni militant group that has established bases in Iraq and Syria

The twin blasts - apparently detonated by the same bomber - targeted the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party that has its own paramilitary forces. The northern city of Mosul, which lies close to semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has also seen more fighting in recent days, raising fears of spreading unrest. Meanwhile, Baghdad saw a string of car bombings over the weekend. 

A surge in sectarian violence in May – more than 900 Iraqis died, the highest monthly toll this year – has roiled Iraq, which is in a political vacuum as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to bolt together another parliamentary majority following elections in April. Critics have blamed Maliki's Shiite-dominated administration for inflaming Sunni-Shiite tensions in central Iraq and giving militants a rallying point for their insurgency. Others point to the overspill from Syria's war and an influx of regional jihadis. [Editor's Note: The original text misstated Maliki's position.

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.

Sunday's suicide bombing took place in Jalawla, 70 miles north of Baghdad, reports Reuters. A local official said the bomber detonated a car outside the PUK headquarters before entering the building and setting off explosives on his body. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack, but said it involved two bombers, not one. 

Jalawla lies in disputed territory, and is one of several towns where Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga regional guards have previously faced off against each other, asserting their competing claims over the area.

Both are a target for Sunni Islamist insurgents who have been regaining ground and momentum in Iraq over the past year.

Sunday also saw fresh fighting in the central city of Ramadi, where ISIS stormed a university campus the previous day. Al-Jazeera reports that ISIS attacked a police patrol, killing at least four officers. Separately, seven army officers died in an explosion in the city.

Agence-France Presse reports that the militants who seized control of Anbar University in Ramadi took students and staff as hostages. Iraqi troops later retook the campus and freed all the hostages, according to the Interior Ministry, though fighting in the area continued Sunday. 

Men and women study together at the university. A student told AFP that the militants had upbraided them for this practice. 

Before security forces moved in, a student said by telephone from inside the university that she and other women had been ordered to gather in one place, after which the militants’ leader addressed them.

“We will teach you a lesson you will never forget,” he said, according to the student’s account.

The student said the Islamist militant branded the university a “brothel” where women wore makeup, listened to music and mixed with men. Fear of another attack, she said, will likely discourage students from returning to their studies.

While militants in Iraq have carried out similar attacks in which they occupied buildings and took hostages, the targets have usually been government facilities.

In recent days, ISIS fighters have also launched large-scale attacks on Samarra, meeting resistance from Iraqi troops backed by air support. Authorities have imposed a curfew on the city, the BBC reports. On Thursday, militants occupied municipal buildings and called on local residents to join their rebellion.

Samarra is a symbolic target for ISIS, which has ties to al Qaeda. In 2006, al Qaeda's Iraqi arm blew up a Shiite shrine in Samarra, an act that helped incite the deadliest phase of the Iraqi war in which tens of thousands died in Sunni-Shiite violence that US forces struggled to contain. 

Witnesses and security sources said dozens of heavily armed militants attacked checkpoints and police stations on the outskirts of Samarra early on Thursday, before moving into the city.

The assailants seized control of the municipality building and university, raising the black flag associated with jihadist groups over both buildings, police told the Reuters news agency.

They also reportedly occupied Samarra's two largest mosques and announced the "liberation" of the city via loudspeaker, urging residents to join their war against the government.

In Mosul, dozens of security officers and civilians have died since Friday in attacks by suspected ISIS fighters. At an arms depot, suicide bombers entered and some managed to detonate their vests, killing eleven soldiers, Al Jazeera reports. 

In a village outside the city, two suicide car bombs killed six members of the Shabak minority, a Muslim ethnic group seen as heretic by fundamentalists because it mixes some Christian beliefs. Sunni militants have targeted Shabak in the past. 

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