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Sunni militants overtake part of Iraqi town

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Iraqi firefighters try to extinguish fire after two bombs went off in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. A police officer says two bombs, hidden in clothing stalls in the capital’s al-Arabi wholesale market, went off simultaneously on Thursday morning, wounding civilians. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Iraqi firefighters try to extinguish fire after two bombs went off in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. A police officer says two bombs, hidden in clothing stalls in the capital’s al-Arabi wholesale market, went off simultaneously on Thursday morning, wounding civilians. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT – In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 photo, An injured boy receives treatment at a hospital after a bombing in Fallujah, Iraq. The situation deteriorated significantly in late December, when security forces dismantled a protest camp near the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi. To defuse tensions, security forces withdrew from Ramadi and the nearby city of Fallujah. Al-Qaida-linked militants promptly took over parts of Ramadi and the center of Fallujah. Since then, the government and allied tribes have been struggling to wrest control of the cities back from the militants. Al-Qaida-led militants are battling for control of mainly Sunni areas to the west of the Iraqi capital in a key test of the Shiite-led government’s ability to maintain security in the country more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. (AP Photo)

Iraqi Federal policemen stand guard as firefighters try to extinguish fire after two bombs went off in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. A police officer says two bombs, hidden in clothing stalls in the capital’s al-Arabi wholesale market, went off simultaneously on Thursday morning, wounding civilians. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

In this picture taken on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, a man inspects the lifeless body of his brother who was killed from a bombing at hospital morgue in Fallujah, Iraq. The situation deteriorated significantly in late December, when security forces dismantled a protest camp near the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi. To defuse tensions, security forces withdrew from Ramadi and the nearby city of Fallujah. Al-Qaida-linked militants promptly took over parts of Ramadi and the center of Fallujah. Since then, the government and allied tribes have been struggling to wrest control of the cities back from the militants. Al-Qaida-led militants are battling for control of mainly Sunni areas to the west of the Iraqi capital in a key test of the Shiite-led government’s ability to maintain security in the country more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. (AP Photo)

In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 photo, masked anti-government gunmen hold their weapons as they patrol Fallujah, Iraq. The situation deteriorated significantly in late December, when security forces dismantled a protest camp near the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi. To defuse tensions, security forces withdrew from Ramadi and the nearby city of Fallujah. Al-Qaida-linked militants promptly took over parts of Ramadi and the center of Fallujah. Since then, the government and allied tribes have been struggling to wrest control of the cities back from the militants. Al-Qaida-led militants are battling for control of mainly Sunni areas to the west of the Iraqi capital in a key test of the Shiite-led government’s ability to maintain security in the country more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. (AP Photo)

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni insurgents affiliated with an al-Qaida local franchise took over Thursday part of a town in northern Iraq, compounding the challenge facing the Shiite-led government as it battles for control of a volatile province west of Baghdad.

Armed with medium and light weapons, the militants first attacked military positions in the town of Sulaiman Bek late afternoon, then they seized control of several streets and deployed snipers on the roofs of some buildings, local official Talib Mohammed Mustafa told the Associated Press.

Mustafa said the town hall and police station are still under the control of security forces who immediately sealed off the town and engaged the militants. He added that sporadic clashes caused casualties among civilians, but he didn’t provide a breakdown.

The town, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Baghdad, has been the scene of fierce clashes last year between security forces and militants who held it completely for days.

The latest foray by the militants comes as the government has been fighting for control of areas in Anbar province since late December, and as the violence has spilled over to other mainly Sunni areas elsewhere in the country.

Residents of the besieged city of Fallujah, which is occupied by al-Qaida-linked militants and other Sunni insurgent groups, said artillery shelling had intensified since last night in a number of the city’s neighborhoods. Troops and allied Sunni tribal militias are also trying to drive militants out of parts of nearby Ramadi city, the provincial capital of the western Anbar province.

Some of the shells hit Fallujah’s general hospital, according to its director Wissam al-Essawi. He said that employees would leave the hospital if it is bombed again.

The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

On Thursday, the United Nations said it is concerned over the plight of civilians caught up in fighting in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad.

“I am particularly concerned about the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Fallujah where many residents are caught up in the fighting,” U.N. mission chief Nickolay Mladenov said in the statement. “The UN continues to urge for humanitarian access to the city,” he added.

The government justified the shelling as targeting gunmen holed up inside houses and government buildings.

In his weekly televised speech on Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said security forces were instructed to differentiate between areas crowded with civilians and those under the control of the militants. But some neighborhoods had turned into “military industrialization” areas, he said.

“Houses, hospitals, schools and other properties are all respected areas, but as we stated before, any house or

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