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Middle east

Al Qaeda-linked militants seize control of Fallujah

© Photo: AFP

Video by Catherine CLIFFORD

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-04

The Iraqi government has lost control of Fallujah to al Qaeda-linked militants, a senior security official said Saturday, after days of fighting.

Parts of Fallujah and of the provincial capital, Ramadi, have been held by militants for days, harkening back to the years after the 2003 US-led invasion when both were insurgent strongholds.

Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on Monday, when security forces removed the main anti-government protest camp set up after demonstrations broke out in late 2012 against what Sunni Arabs say is the marginalisation and targeting of their community. The fighting then spread to Fallujah, some 44 kilometres away.

"Fallujah is under the control of ISIL," a senior security official in Anbar province said, referring to Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

However, the city's outskirts were in the hands of local police, the official added.

An AFP journalist in Fallujah said that ISIL seemed to be in control, with no security forces or Sahwa anti-al Qaeda militiamen visible on the streets.

More than 100 people were killed on Friday during fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah, in the country's deadliest single day in years.

Hundreds of gunmen, some bearing the black flags often flown by jihadists, gathered at outdoor weekly Muslim prayers in central Fallujah on Friday, a witness said.

One went to where the prayer leader had stood, and said: "We announce that Fallujah is an Islamic state and call you to stand by our side."

Militants drove through the city in a stolen police car proclaiming through a loudspeaker: “We are your brothers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, We are here to protect you from the government. We call on you to cooperate with us.''

Vast desert area

Anbar province, a vast desert area on the borders with Syria and Jordan with an almost entirely Sunni population was the heartland of the Sunni insurgency that rose up against American troops and the Iraqi government after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Fallujah became notorious when insurgents in 2004 killed four American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a bridge. Fallujah, Ramadi and other cities were repeatedly battlegrounds as sectarian bloodshed mounted. US forces suffered almost one-third of their total Iraq fatalities in Anbar, according to independent website icasualties.org.

From 2006, Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents allied with US troops against jihadists in a process that began in Anbar and came to be known as the "Awakening".

Two years after US forces withdrew from the country, the power of militants in the province is again rising.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had long sought the closure of the anti-government protest camp, dubbing it a "headquarters for the leadership of Al Qaeda".  Clashes erupted in the Ramadi area on Monday as security forces tore down the sprawling  camp.

As a concession, al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled the military out of Anbar cities to give security duties to local police, a top demand of Sunnis who see the army as a tool of al-Maliki's rule. But al-Qaeda militants promptly erupted in Fallujah, Ramadi and several nearby towns, overrunning police station, driving out security forces and freeing prisoners

ISIL is the latest incarnation of an al Qaeda affiliate that lost ground from 2006, but has made a striking comeback following the US withdrawal and the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011.

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said its "strength and territorial control and influence has been expanding in Anbar for some time", although mainly in rural desert areas.

While the closure of the protest camp removed a physical sign of Sunni Arab grievances, the perceived injustices that underpinned the protest have not been addressed. ISIL "has ridden this wave of popular Sunni anger", Lister said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

Date created : 2014-01-04

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