Militants take hostages in Baghdad as Jan toll tops 900


BAGHDAD: Militants stormed a government building in Baghdad and took civil servants hostage on Thursday as renewed violence pushed the death toll for January past 900 with elections looming in three months.
The brazen assault on the offices of the transport ministry along Canal Street in the northeast of the capital comes as security forces grapple with intensifying violence and an extended standoff with anti-government fighters in western Anbar province.
Washington has provided Baghdad with additional weaponry to help it combat militants and plans to sell Iraq 24 Apache attack helicopters as well, but diplomats and analysts say the Shiite-led government must do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni community in order to undercut support for militancy.
Eight gunmen stormed a building occupied by a state-owned company run by the transport ministry in Baghdad on Thursday morning and took a number of people hostage, a police officer and an interior ministry official said.
It was not immediately clear if any casualties had resulted from the militant attack. 
“A terrorist group infiltrated the company, which is next to our building,” said Kamal Amin, spokesman for the human rights ministry, which has offices next door.
“For the safety of our employees, we have taken all necessary security measures and we have evacuated our building.”
Security forces sealed off the surrounding area, which is home to other government offices, including the headquarters of the transport ministry and a human rights ministry building.
Elsewhere in the Iraqi capital on Thursday, bombings near a market and a restaurant in the Shiite-majority neighbourhoods of Kasra and Talbiyah killed six people, security and medical officials said.
They struck just hours after several car bombs ripped through Baghdad Jadidah, Shuala and Talbiyah, all of which are predominantly Shiite, leaving nine people dead on Wednesday evening.
Attacks on Wednesday also hit the outskirts of the capital, as well as the northern cities of Mosul and Tuz Khurmatu, killing seven others.
At least 909 people have been killed so far this month as a result of violence in Iraq, more than three times the toll for January 2013, according to an AFP tally based on reports from security and medical officials.
No group claimed responsibility for the ministry assault and the bombings, but Sunni militants affiliated with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have in the past mounted similar attacks in Baghdad.
Iraqi officials on Wednesday, meanwhile, published a rare photograph purportedly of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first of its kind released by an official source.
The black-and-white picture, which provides a rare glimpse of the man leading a militant group blamed for killing countless Iraqis, shows a balding man with a beard wearing a suit and tie.
The latest bloodletting comes as security forces are locked in battles with militants, including those affiliated with ISIL, in Anbar, a mostly-Sunni desert region west of Baghdad that shares a border with Syria.
It is the first time militants have exercised such open control in Iraqi cities since the peak of violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
Security forces have been locked in battles in Ramadi, where militants hold several neighbourhoods, and have carried out operations in rural areas of Anbar province.
Anti-government fighters also hold all of Fallujah, on Baghdad’s doorstep.

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