Residents are fleeing Fallujah as the Iraqi army launches a major assault to oust al Qaeda-linked militants, officials said Sunday. Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is also active in Syria, seized the city last week.
The takeover of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital farther west, is the first time militants have exercised such open control in major Iraqi cities since the height of the bloody insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
Iraqi army airstrikes and fighting killed more than 34 people on Sunday, officials said, as well as at least 25 militants. Two Anbar government officials told the Associated Press by telephone that 22 soldiers and 12 civilians were killed around Ramadi and another 58 people were wounded.
A government statement said the air force struck a militants' hideout overnight, identifying them as belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda-linked group the government refers to as “terrorists”.
Aerial video of the airstrikes released by Iraq's defence ministry showed al Qaeda hideouts in Anbar province being bombarded. Some of the images showed men gathered around a vehicle, then running away as the site was struck.
On Friday and Saturday, more than 160 people were killed in the worst violence to hit Anbar province in years.
Washington said it would help Baghdad in its fight against the militants but that there would be no return of US troops. Iran on Sunday also offered assistance.
'Siege could take days'
ISIL last week took control of large parts of Fallujah, joining forces with tribesmen frustrated with the government.
One option for ousting al Qaeda from Fallujah would be for army units and tribal fighters to form a "belt" around the city, isolating it and cutting off the militants' supply routes, military and local officials said.
"The siege could take days, we are betting on the time to give people a chance to leave the city, weaken the militants and exhaust them," a senior military officer told Reuters.
Washington said it would help Baghdad in its battle against the militants but that there would be no return of US troops, with Secretary of State John Kerry describing the conflict as "their fight” in a reference to Iraqi troops.
"We are not, obviously, contemplating returning, we are not contemplating putting boots on the ground," Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem.
'Most dangerous players' in the region
ISIL is the latest incarnation of al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate and has made a striking comeback in the past year, taking advantage of widespread discontent among Sunni Muslims, who feel sidelined and victimised by Iraq's Shiite government.
In neighbouring Syria, ISIL has become a major player in joining the nearly three-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, capturing vast swathes of land in the north.
“We are very, very concerned about the efforts of al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, who are trying to assert their authority not just in Iraq, but in Syria,” Kerry said.
“These are the most dangerous players in that region. Their barbarism against the civilians in Ramadi and Fallujah and against Iraqi security forces is on display for everyone in the world to see," he said.
Both Ramadi and Fallujah were strongholds in the insurgency against American troops and the nascent Iraqi government after 2003. Fallujah was the target of two major assaults by US forces.
Violence in Iraq last year reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-01-05