Iraq bloodshed surges ahead of Maliki-Obama talks

BAGHDAD - Violence in Iraq is at its worst level since 2008, figures showed Friday, as premier Nuri al-Maliki was to appeal for Barack Obama's help to combat a spike in militancy.

The new figures illustrate a months-long surge in unrest despite wide-ranging operations targeting insurgents and a major tightening of security in Baghdad and elsewhere, with little sign of respite ahead of elections due within months.

Maliki is to call for more military equipment and greater security cooperation in talks with the US president later on Friday in Washington, after likening the fight against Al-Qaeda-linked militants to a third world war.

New figures released by the ministries of health, interior and defence showed that violence last month left 964 people dead - 855 civilians, 65 policemen and 44 soldiers - and a further 1,600 wounded.

The overall death toll was the highest since April 2008, when 1,073 people were killed.

At the time, Iraq was slowly emerging from a brutal sectarian war that claimed tens of thousands of lives, with concerns reemerging that the country is on the brink of sliding back into another round of such bloodletting.

Violence continued to roil Iraq on Friday, meanwhile, with four people killed in the north of the country.

Figures compiled by AFP based on reports from security and medical officials, meanwhile, showed a decline in violence last month, but still put the death toll at one of the highest figures of the year.

Overall, at least 743 people were killed by attacks in Iraq in October, according to the AFP tally, more than similar figures for January, February and March combined.

Attacks struck all manner of sites in Iraq last month, from public parks and restaurants to funerals and government buildings, targeting security forces, civilians and civil servants, with dozens of suicide bombings and vehicles packed with explosives ripping through towns and cities.

Much of the violence has been attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al-Qaeda front group that is opposed to Iraq's Shiite leadership.

Diplomats and analysts have called for Maliki's government to seek a long-term accommodation with the country's disaffected Sunni Arab minority in a bid to cut support for militancy.

But officials have thus far concentrated on security operations that they insist are yielding results.

Maliki, meanwhile, has sought to drum up support in Washington for Iraq, calling in a speech on Thursday for an "international war against terrorism".

Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace, the Iraqi leader called Al-Qaeda and its ilk "a virus" which was trying to spread "a dirty wind" around the region.

"If we have had two world wars, we want a third world war against those who are killing people, killing populations, who are calling for bloodshed, for ignorance and do not want logic to govern our daily lives."

But the premier denied Iraq was plagued by sectarian unrest, pitting Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as Kurds against each other, saying "all are targeted".

He blamed terror groups for setting back Iraq's struggles to emerge from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the bloodshed of the 2003 US-led invasion to rebuild its institutions, schools and homes.

Ahead of Maliki's talks with Obama, the United States has vowed to help Iraq combat terror groups, but said Baghdad needed a broader strategy which was not just based on strengthening its military arsenal.

The top US commander in the Middle East, General Lloyd Austin, meanwhile gave voice to increasing concern in Washington that Al-Qaeda will manage to hunker down in a safe haven stretching from western Iraq into Syria, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.