BAGHDAD (USATODAY.com) — At least 44 Sunni detainees died during a battle between would-be Sunni rescuers and pro-government Shiite militiamen guarding the suspected militants at a police station northeast of the capital, Iraqi police officials said Tuesday.
Police said the detainees died after Sunni militants attacked the station in Diyala province Monday night in an attempt to free them, the Associated Press reports, but there is conflicting information on the cause of death.
Three police officers say the station, which has a small jail, came under attack by Islamic militants. The three say the Shiite militiamen killed the detainees at close range.
A morgue official in the provincial capital of Baqouba said many had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their safety, the AP reports.
Iraq's military said 52 detainees were killed when the attackers shelled the station with mortar rounds.
The latest violence comes as Sunni militants strike ever closer to Baghdad and both Iran and the United States deepen their involvement in the conflict, with the commander of Tehran's elite Quds force helping out the Iraqi military and the U.S. beefing up security at its embassy in the capital.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces killed 56 "terrorists" and wounded 21 just outside the capital in the last 24 hours in clashes with the al-Qaeda-breakaway group known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, referred to as ISIL or ISIS. The Levant is a traditional name for the region including Iraq and greater Syria.
Insurgents have seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, and an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.
On Monday, militants also killed six Iraqis and wounded four in an ambush of off-duty soldiers around Samarra, a city north of Baghdad that is home to a much-revered Shiite shrine, a government official said, according to the Associated Press.
In Baghdad, food prices have soared as tightened security disrupts the main road north of the capital.
The ISIL's vow to march to Baghdad, then south to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, mark the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.
The White House insisted Monday that the U.S. would not be sending combat troops to Iraq, but is deploying up to 275 military troops to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers.
Some embassy staff have been moved elsewhere in Iraq and to neighboring Jordan, the State Department said.
President Obama, who notified Congress of the deployment on Monday under the requirements of the War Powers Resolution, said the troops are equipped for combat and will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that they are no longer needed.
These forces are entering Iraq with the consent of the government there, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Neighboring Iran, which backs the Shiite-led government of the besieged prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is also staking out a higher profile as the security situation deteriorates.
Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, commander of Tehran's elite Quds Force, has been consulting in Iraq on how to roll back the militant onslaught, officials said Monday. The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani's visit.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the U.S. is willing to talk with Iran to stem the advance by extremists and would not rule out possible military cooperation with the longtime enemy.
But the Pentagon quickly underscored that Washington would not be consulting with Iran on any potential military intervention. "We are not planning to engage with Iran on military activities inside Iraq," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
In another sign of closer cooperation between Tehran and the West, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament Tuesday that Britain would reopen its embassy in Tehran following an improvement in bilateral relations in recent months. Hague said the "circumstances were right" to improve ties.
For its part, Iraq's Shiite-leadership is trying to rally support. A call to arms Friday from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, underscored the threat to the holy shrines.
Hundreds of young Iraqis, gripped by religious and nationalistic fervor, have streamed to recruiting centers to join the Iraqi army in battling the militants.
Despite impressive gains in recent days, Sunni insurgents are not likely strong enough to take over Iraq's Shiite south, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer who now works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Iraq's military has more than enough in its home terrain to prevent Sunni militants to make inroads," Gerecht said.
Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va., and the Associated Press. Stanglin reported from McLean, Va.