BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least four people were killed and around 10 wounded in clashes between militants and Iraqi security forces in the restive northern province of Diyala, officials said on Sunday.
The clashes erupted on Saturday afternoon in the orchard area of al-Hdaid, near the city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad. Baquba is the capital of Diyala, a troubled province where al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents still battle Iraqi security forces.
A volatile mix of minority Kurds, majority Shi’ites and Sunnis has made it difficult to bring peace to Diyala.
Sadiq Jaafar al-Hussaini, deputy head of Diyala provincial council, said the Iraqi security forces were trying to capture “a den of snipers” in the area. He said four members of the Iraqi army and police were killed.
One security source said three policemen and three militants were killed in the fighting, and 10 Iraqi security forces were wounded. A police source put the casualties at eight killed — three policemen and five militants — and 12 wounded.
Iraqi security sources sometimes give conflicting figures of casualties.
Insurgents linked to al Qaeda are believed to be trying to exploit a political vacuum that followed Iraq’s inconclusive election in March. More than six months later, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions remain in dispute over the formation of a new government.
Hussaini said militants planted bombs around the area to prevent security forces from entering, but the Iraqi army was able to break through the barricade. “There are good indications that the operation will end soon,” he said.
The clashes started after a roadside bomb went off near a police patrol and militants opened fire, Diyala Governor Abdul Nassir al-Mehdawi said.
“Security measures are in place, the orchards are surrounded and now the search for militants is about to start to arrest the criminals who planted the bomb,” Mehdawi told Reuters.
Attacks have been on the rise in the past weeks against the Iraqi army and police, who have taken over responsibility for security in Iraq after the United States formally ended its combat mission on Aug 31.
Reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Hilmi Kamal in Baquba; Writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton