BAGHDAD — Sunni insurgents pushed further into a province northeast of Baghdad, laid siege to a police station and battled pro-government Shiite militiamen in overnight clashes that left at least 44 detainees dead, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.
There were conflicting reports on details of the fighting in the al-Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province.
Three police officers said the police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday night by Islamic militants who tried to free the detainees, all suspected Sunni militants.
The three said Shiite militiamen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range. A morgue official in the provincial capital of Baqouba said many of the slain detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety.
However, Iraq's chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told The Associated Press that 52 detainees who were held at the station in al-Kattoun died when the attackers shelled it with mortar rounds.
Al-Moussawi said the attackers belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida-inspired group that last week captured a large swath of territory in a lightning offensive in northern Iraq.
The group is known to be active in Diyala, where Shiite militiamen are deployed alongside government forces.
Nine of the attackers were killed, said al-Moussawi. The conflicting reports could not immediately be reconciled.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. Their push has largely been unchecked as Iraqi troops and police melted away and surrendered in the militants' onslaught on the city of Mosul and Trikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
But a call to arms on Friday from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, raised the specter that the turmoil in Iraq is quickly evolving into a Sunni-Shiite conflict.