Islamist insurgents took over parts of a town in northern Iraq on Thursday, local officials said, gaining further ground against the government in Baghdad, which has also lost control of another city.
In Baghdad, two bomb blasts in a historic market killed at least two people and wounded at least 11, officials said.
The mayor of Sulaiman Bek said the militants belonged to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a group involved in the takeover of the city of Fallujah last month and is also active in neighboring Syria.
“We are still inside the government building in the town center surrounded by the gunmen. They are attacking us with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns,” mayor Talib Mohammed said.
“They are from the Islamic State of Iraq: we know them from the black flags they are flying… We demand the government intervene to help us.”
Islamist insurgents including ISIS have been regaining ground in Iraq over the past year, but the takeover of Fallujah on January 1 marks the first time they have openly held territory in years.
“We woke up this morning to mosques loudspeakers announcing that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is controlling the town and demanding residents to leave their houses,” local official Ahmed Aziz said.
“Most of the families are leaving the city fearing …a bloody battle.”
Sulaiman Bek, located 160 kilometers north of Baghdad, has a population of around 25,000 people.
It had been targeted in the past by militants, who last year executed 14 truck drivers on a nearby highway and seized territory temporarily.
Sulaiman Bek was also briefly seized by militants in late April, but the assailants later withdrew under a deal worked out by tribal leaders and government officials, allowing security forces to move back in.
The Baghdad attacks struck the Shorjah market, which dates to the Abbassid era over 700 years ago, killing at least two people.
An AFP journalist said one bomb exploded in the perfume market and the second hit an area where clothes are sold.
The explosions sparked fires, the largest of which raged through the perfume market, sending a pillar of black smoke skywards.
Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when it was just emerging from a period of brutal killings.
Foreign leaders have urged the Shia-led government to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni minority.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a hard line ahead of a general election scheduled for April.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)