Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed for calm and dialogue as Sunni protesters battle his security forces for a third consecutive day in several parts of northern and central Iraq.
In a nationally-televised address on Thursday, Maliki urged Iraqis "not to remain silent" about what he called efforts by "terrorists" to drag the country toward a sectarian civil war. He warned that if sedition spreads, there will be "no winners and losers, everyone will lose."
Maliki's security forces surrounded the northern town of Suleiman Beg in preparation for trying to recapture it, a day after Sunnis took control of the area near the city of Tuz Khormato.
The seizure was one of several incidents carried out by Sunnis on Wednesday, in apparent revenge for government troops raiding a Sunni protest site in the central town of Hawija on the previous day.
Sunni militia also tried to seize parts of the northern city of Mosul late Wednesday, triggering a battle with security forces that killed at least 40 people, about 30 of them gunmen. Iraqi troops regained control of the area on Thursday.
Tuesday's government raid on Hawija sparked fighting that killed at least 53 people. Iraqi authorities said security forces entered the camp to crack down on Sunnis militants suspected of infiltrating the demonstration.
The three days of fighting are the deadliest in four months of protests by Iraq's minority Sunnis, who have been demanding the resignation of Maliki, a majority Shi'ite.
They accuse his Shi'ite-led government of marginalizing the Sunni community and unfairly targeting its leaders for prosecution and arrest.
In his address, Maliki said he will not allow the security forces to "infringe on the dignity of citizens." He also said no one will be allowed to infringe on the dignity of the Iraqi army and police whom he called Iraq's sources of "pride and strength."
Analyst Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said some of Iraq's elite army units are very good, but small in size and cannot cover the whole country.
"That means they are going to be a lot of areas which will be vulnerable." he said.
In an interview with VOA prior to the Hawija raid, the former U.S. State Department and Defense Department official said regular Iraqi army units are capable of formal security measures, but are not particularly effective in dealing with armed opposition.
"The Iraqi army is divided," Cordesman said. "Often it is focusing on Shi'ite areas or is creating tension with Sunni areas rather than acting as a source of security," he said.
The analyst also said many elements of the Iraqi police are not effective, with the exception of national police units.
"Most Iraqi police forces reverted to a relatively passive, corrupt and ineffective state within months of the U.S. troop departure [in December 2011]," he said.