BAGHDAD — Security forces backed by helicopters battled supporters of a radical cleric in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala on Wednesday as spreading violence threatened to pull more areas of the country into turmoil.
The clashes erupted when the security forces tried to seize the offices of Shi’ite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, who has sharply criticized the government. The fighting marked the first sign of a potential for violent rifts within the Shi’ite community as the government battles a Sunni insurgency inspired by Al Qaeda. Two members of the security forces were killed along with an unconfirmed number of the cleric’s gunmen, according to a local official.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to prevent the breakup of Iraq in the face of an offensive by the heavily armed insurgents, who have already declared an Islamic state stretching across Iraqi and Syrian territory. But the threats to Iraq’s territorial integrity are many, as the Kurds prepare to vote on independence farther north and Shi’ite dissatisfaction bubbles in the south.
With violence engulfing the country, Maliki on Wednesday offered an amnesty to Sunni tribesmen who have joined the insurgency, his latest attempt to claw back control. In his weekly televised address, the embattled prime minister called on tribal leaders to stand behind the Iraqi state, although he said that in cases of ‘‘spilled blood’’ it would be up to victims’ families to decide whether the tribesmen should be forgiven.
After overrunning the northern city of Mosul on June 10, Sunni fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now renamed Islamic State, have seized territory in the north and west and proclaimed a caliphate on captured lands.
‘‘They should return to their senses,’’ Maliki said of the tribesmen. ‘‘I welcome them. I welcome them back. I welcome their unity with their brothers from other tribes.’’
The United States successfully brought Sunni tribesmen on board to battle Al Qaeda as part of the Sunni Awakening movement starting in 2005. But Maliki, a Shi’ite, has not kept up payments or fulfilled promises to incorporate the Sunnis into the security forces, stirring resentment.
He has also faced opposition from Shi’ites themselves, including Sarkhi in Karbala, about 55 miles southwest of Baghdad.
His speech came just a day after the first session of Iraq’s newly elected Parliament broke up in disarray, with no progress on forming a new government. The legislative session ended in heated arguments and a walkout, an indication of the divisions besetting the country.
Maliki, who is trying to secure a third term in office despite dwindling support, said he hoped that next week’s parliamentary session would be more productive and that factions would be ‘‘realistic.’’ While the political process is important, he said, there must also be a focus on the ‘‘battle.’’
Iraqi forces attempted to enter Sarkhi’s compound just after midnight Tuesday, and his armed supporters battled them for nine hours, said the local official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide information. He said helicopters fired on the compound.
It was not immediately possible to confirm the death toll, which Iraqi news media put at between three and 14. Sarkhi, who split from the anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in 2004, posted pictures of slain supporters on his official website. Another photo showed what was described as a burning Iraqi military Humvee.
‘‘These militia-like actions are a result of the stand of [Sarkhi], who rejects division and sectarianism, which has killed the people of Iraq,’’ said a statement on the site.