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19 killed in suicide bombing targeting government-linked Shiite militia

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"We got a call they had been a huge blast on the Sahwa headquarters in Taji. The Sahwa were there to collect their pay," said local police commissioner Furat Faleh. "When we rushed to the hall ... people were lying bleeding all around and cash was scattered in pools of blood."

The Sahwa or "Sons of Iraq" are former Sunni insurgents who rebelled against Al Qaeda in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar at the height of the US-led war and helped American troops to turn the tide of the conflict.

No group claimed responsibility for Monday's attack, but Al Qaeda's affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, has vowed to take back ground lost to American and US forces, and has urged Iraqi Sunnis to rise up against Mr. Maliki's government.

A suicide bomber and gunmen killed at least 33 people in a huge blast at the police headquarters in the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk on Sunday.

Maliki has been struggling to end mass protests by Sunni Muslims against what they see as marginalization of their sect since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Iraq's Shiite majority.

The Sunni unrest and the violence are compounding fears that the war in neighbouring Syria – where Sunni rebels are battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shiite Iran – could undermine Iraq's own delicate sectarian and ethnic balance.

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