BAGHADAD - Gunmen killed five army intelligence soldiers in two attacks west of Baghdad while others shot dead five anti-Qaeda militiamen north of the Iraqi capital on Saturday, police and doctors said.
One group of soldiers were driving near the site of a long-running anti-government protest when they were stopped by gunmen. They shot one of the gunmen, wounding him, and clashes broke out in which four of the soldiers were killed and another wounded, a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor said.
Gunmen also killed one soldier and wounded another in a similar incident involving a second vehicle in the same area, the same sources said.
And gunmen killed five Sahwa anti-Qaeda militiamen in an attack, on a checkpoint south of Tikrit, which lies north of the Iraqi capital, a second police lieutenant colonel and a doctor said.
Sectarian strife has returned to Iraq from elsewhere in the region, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, a likely reference to neighbouring war-torn Syria.
A civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has killed more than 70,000 people.
Sectarian strife "came back to Iraq because it began in another place in this region," Maliki said in televised remarks, an allusion to Sunni-Shiite violence that peaked in 2006 and 2006 and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
On Thursday, Maliki warned of the danger that Iraq was slipping into "sectarian civil war," and his latest remarks expanded on that.
"Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a licence to cross from a country to another, because if it begins in a place, it will move to another place," he said on Saturday.
"Strife is knocking on the doors of everyone, and no one will survive if it enters, because there is a wind behind it, and money, and plans."
The United Nations warned on Friday that Iraq is at a "crossroads" and appealed for restraint, as four days of violence, including several attacks at mosques, killed more than 200 people.
"I call on the conscience of all religious and political leaders not to let anger win over peace, and to use their wisdom, because the country is at a crossroads," UN envoy Martin Kobler said in a statement.
Clerics Abdulghafur al-Samarraie and Saleh al-Haidari, who respectively head the Sunni and Shiite religious endowments, have also warned against sectarian strife.
Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in Iraq, including bombings and death squad murders that peaked in 2006 and 2007, claimed tens of thousands of lives.
On Friday, bombs exploded at three Sunni mosques in Baghdad and a fourth north of the capital, killing at least four people and wounding 50, an official and medics said.
More than a dozen people were killed in attacks at Sunni mosques on Tuesday.
And a motorcycle bomb in the Baghdad Shiite district of Sadr City killed at least five people and wounded 21, while a roadside bomb in Dura in the capital's south wounded at least four, officials said.
With tensions high, a Sunni cleric at the site of a long-running anti-government protest near Ramadi, west of Baghdad, called in a Friday sermon for the creation of an army to defend Sunnis.
Sheikh Hamed al-Kubaisi urged each Sunni tribe to provide 100 people.
A journalist saw between 60 and 70 men who had responded to Kubaisi's call near the site of the protest, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
"I joined... to defend Sunnis," said 24-year-old Omar al-Hadithi, one of the men. "I am not afraid of arrest. I am ready to fight anywhere."
Meanwhile, security forces moved back into the northern town of Sulaiman Bek after gunmen who seized it withdrew, according to local official Shalal Abdul Baban.
The gunmen pulled out of the predominantly Turkmen Sunni town in Salaheddin province under a deal worked out by tribal leaders and government officials, Baban and municipal council deputy chief Ahmed Aziz said.
But they were able to make off with 30 machineguns and dozens of vehicles and have set up checkpoints only five kilometres (three miles) from the town, Baban said.
He also said helicopter fire wounded six people on the roof of a house in the town early on Friday.
The gunmen had swarmed into Sulaiman Bek on Wednesday after deadly clashes with security force, who pulled back as residents fled.
Army Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed said on Thursday that the gunmen in Sulaiman Bek, who he said numbered about 175, had been given 48 hours to withdraw or face attack.
The 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 northern Sunni Arab town of Hawijah, sparking clashes that left 53 people dead.
Dozens more were killed in subsequent unrest, much but not all of it apparently linked to Tuesday's clashes, bringing the death toll to more than 200 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 Sunni protesters have called for the resignation of Maliki and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community, including with what they say are wrongful detentions and accusations of involvement in terrorism.
In other violence, seven gunmen died in attacks on security forces south of the northern city of Kirkuk on Friday, a high-ranking army officer and a medical source said.
And gunmen killed a Sahwa anti-Qaeda militiaman south of Kirkuk, while seven Katyusha rockets wounded two civilians in the city, police and a medical source said.