Residents hold Kurdish flags as they protest against Turkish shelling on northern Iraq, outside the Turkish consulate in Arbil
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Heavy fighting erupted Thursday between Iraqi government troops and Sunni militants who seized large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, two cities in Iraq's western Anbar province that were at the center of the armed resistance to the US occupation a decade ago.
The renewed fighting came as figures released by the United Nations and other agencies indicated that the 2013 death toll in Iraq has risen to its highest level since the US military "surge" of 2007-2008.
The United Nations put the number of Iraqi civilian lives lost to violence last year at 7,818, with another 1,050 members of the security forces killed over the same period. Another estimate by the British-based group Iraq Body Count (IBC) put the civilian death toll at 9,475.
In releasing the UN's estimate, the head of the UN mission in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said: "This is a sad and terrible record which confirms once again the urgent need for the Iraqi authorities to address the roots of violence to curb this infernal circle."
Noting that last year's death toll was roughly equivalent to that of 2008, Iraq Body Count pointed out that the 2008 figure "represented a decline in violent deaths (down from 25,800), whereas now it represents an increase; it has more than doubled since last year, when the recorded civilians deaths were 4,500."
IBC added that "If current violence levels continue unabated throughout the coming year, then 2014 threatens to be as deadly as 2004, which saw the two sieges of Fallujah [by the US military] and Iraq's insurgency take hold."
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