Iraqi security forces and armed tribesmen on Thursday battled al Qaeda-linked jihadist militants who reportedly seized swathes of two Sunni-majority cities in an escalation of a crisis that has gripped the country for a decade.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of strategic areas in the western Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, setting up checkpoints, seizing jails and freeing prisoners, according to Iraqi security officials.
Fallujah and Ramadi are located in the Anbar province, which shares a border with Syria and was an area of major fighting in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
The latest fighting erupted earlier this week after Iraqi authorities moved against a protest camp in the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi following an order by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki, a Shiite politician, had long sought the closure of the camp which represented a physical sign of deep-seated grievances among Iraqi Sunnis, who complain of being marginalised and targeted by the Shiite-led government and security forces.
Clashes erupted after arrest of Sunni lawmaker
Clashes broke out this week after the government moved to arrest a Sunni lawmaker wanted on terrorism charges over the weekend.
As clashes spread from Ramadi to Fallujah, ISIL militants seized control of half of Fallujah and some areas of Ramadi, an Iraqi interior ministry official told the AFP on Thursday.
But Iraqi security forces and armed tribesmen began to fight back later Thursday. "We entered Fallujah with heavy clashes," special forces commander Major General Fadhel al-Barwari said in an online statement.
In east Ramadi, fighting erupted between Iraqi tribesman and police on one side and militants on the other, according to the AFP.
Shiite cleric and militia leader arrested
The fighting in the two western cities came a day after Iraqi security forces in the capital of Baghdad arrested a controversial Shiite cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia in a move apparently aimed at bolstering Sunni support for the government.
Wathiq al-Batat, a fiery cleric who announced the formation of a so-called Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites from attacks by Sunni extremists last year, has been wanted by the government for several months.
The Shiite cleric took responsibility in November for firing six mortar shells at a region of Saudi Arabia bordering Iraq and Kuwait, describing it as retaliation for Saudi religious decrees that allegedly insult Shiites and encourage killing them. He also claimed responsibility for attacks on a camp hosting an Iranian opposition group.
The latest fighting in Iraq has underscored the deepening sectarian divides threatening Iraq and the region as the spillover from the Syrian uprising grips Syria’s neighbours.
On Wednesday, the UN said 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008, with at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces killed in violent attacks.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)
Date created : 2014-01-02