BAGHDAD -- In the face of an armed rebellion by disgruntled Sunni Muslims against his Shiite-led government, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki on Thursday urged dialogue to calm tensions but vowed to continue military operations in a growing sectarian conflict that he warned could lead to a civil war like the one raging in Syria.
"Security forces must impose security in Iraq, which is affected by a region teeming with sectarianism," Mr. Maliki said in a speech broadcast to the nation on Thursday afternoon. "And now we are starting to see those problems come to us."
Mr. Maliki's remarks came as his security forces continued to battle armed Sunni tribesmen, some linked to an insurgent group led by former officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, in a fight that began Tuesday morning when security forces raided a Sunni protest camp in the northern village of Hawija, near Kirkuk, that left at least 50 civilians dead and more than 100 wounded. That led to a series of revenge attacks against security forces, and the fighting intensified Wednesday in the town of Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad that was surrounded by army vehicles after insurgents had taken over government buildings. The government used helicopter gunships to shoot at militants hiding in the village, and was said to be preparing a broader assault on the town.
"What happened in Hawija, and what is happening today in Sulaiman Bek and other places, is a point in which we should stop and think because it might lead to sectarian strife," Mr. Maliki said. "Everyone would lose. Whether he is in the north, the south, east or west of Iraq, if the fire of sectarianism starts, everyone's fingers will be burned by it."
Meanwhile, as fighting also raged in the northern city of Mosul, in Falluja and in villages surrounding Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, there were signs that Mr. Maliki's military was fracturing along sectarian lines.
Sheik Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a leading Sunni cleric who wields enormous influence over Iraq's Sunni population, has urged members of Iraq's security forces to abandon their posts and join the opposition to the Shiite-led government, saying they should do so just as "their brothers did in Syria."
In linking the raging civil war in Syria to the growing unrest here in Iraq, the declaration is one of the surest signs yet that the sectarian battles under way in both countries are regarded by Sunnis as two elements of a burgeoning regional sectarian conflict. The civil war in Syria pits a Sunni-led rebellion against a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Mr. Saadi released his statement Wednesday night from Amman, Jordan, where he lives. While he urged soldiers -- he did not specify only Sunnis -- to leave the military, he stopped short of endorsing an armed rebellion against the government by ordering deserting soldiers to leave their weapons behind.
He told government opponents to exercise restraint "as long as the armed forces are peaceful."
"But if they open fire, then burn the land beneath them and defend yourself with courage and strength," he said.
Mr. Saadi, who fled Saddam Hussein's repression and in recent years began to hold religious sway over Iraq's Sunnis, has taken on a growing role in directing the waves of Sunni protests here, which began in December and this week took a violent turn with the raid on Hawija.
Already, a few Sunni members of Iraq's army are deserting, said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, the province where Hawija is located. The desertions underscore the speed at which the situation here is beginning to mimic the early stages of the civil war in Syria, when government forces turned their weapons on peaceful Sunni-led protests, spurring desertions from soldiers unwilling to kill members of their own sect.
"The Sunnis certainly don't want to fight," said Governor Karim, adding that some members of army units based near Kirkuk had contacted local officials, saying they wanted to leave their posts. "They don't want to kill their own people."
One Sunni soldier, who agreed to speak on the condition that his name not be used, said he paid a bribe to avoid joining his unit in the assault on Hawija. "I paid money to my officer in the army not to send me," he said. "I have a family and children, and I did not think that the issue is worth dying for."
"It's our duty to protect Iraq from external enemies, not to take up arms against the people," he added.
The continuing battles on Thursday, which by late afternoon had left nearly 50 people killed, most of them described by security official as militants, came as Western diplomats intensified efforts to convince Mr. Maliki and his government to back away from a military solution to the Sunni uprising. The urgings were met with justifications for the heavy hand, partly out of fears that the situation would otherwise deteriorate into another Syria, according to one Western diplomat and an official close to Mr. Maliki, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat, who also agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said a fierce disagreement had erupted within the military command between Sunnis who opposed the military response and Shiite officers who directed it.
In many areas where clashes have occurred, the fight on the Sunni side is being directed by members of an insurgent group, the Men of the Army of Naqshbandia Order, led by former Baath Party members, which has long operated in Iraq in the shadow of Al Qaeda. The Naqshbandia group has emerged in recent days as a potent fighting force, and has attracted new recruits seeking an outlet for revenge against the government for the killings in Hawija.
"We fight for the honor of our families and people," said Abu Bakr al-Qaisi, a member of the Naqshbandia group in Diyala Province. He said the organization had been receiving reinforcements of men and weapons from local tribes. "It will be shame on us if we stopped to watch our brothers getting killed in Iraq."
The fighting in recent days has evoked painful memories of Iraq's sectarian war a few years ago, its psychic wounds not yet salved, and some families in Baghdad were even stocking up on food out fear that war could again reach the capital.
In Kirkuk, where the bodies of those killed in Hawija were being buried, officials said some of the bodies had wounds, like gunshots to the head, that appeared to have been inflicted at close range. Some, according to Mr. Karim, the Kirkuk governor, also had stab wounds. Mr. Karim said he received a phone call from Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of Parliament in Baghdad, who promised to send investigators.
Friday, the day when Sunni protests have traditionally been at their most zealous, loomed ominously, and many expected further clashes.
"The situation is very grim and I think it will spread," Governor Karim said.
Duraid Adnan and Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk and Diyala Provinces.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.