IRAQ HAS LOST Fallujah to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, a senior security official said today, putting militants back in control of the city in Anbar province where American forces repeatedly battled insurgents.
But security forces have struck fighters from Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in two other areas of Anbar, killing 55 of them, a senior army officer said.
Parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, had already been held by militants for days, harkening back to the years after the 2003 US-led invasion when both cities were insurgent strongholds.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on Monday, when security forces broke up an 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 violence then spread to Fallujah, and a subsequent withdrawal of security forces from areas of both cities cleared the way for militants to move in.
“Fallujah is under the control of ISIL,” a senior security official in Anbar told AFP, while the city’s outskirts were in the hands of local police.
Meanwhile, Iraqi ground forces commander Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed told AFP security forces killed 25 ISIL fighters in Albufaraj, near Ramadi, and 30 in Garma, close to Fallujah.
He also said police and tribesmen were hunting for militants in Ramadi, with army support.
Majeed said there are three groups involved in the fighting: security forces and allied tribes, ISIL, and forces of the anti-government “Military Council of the Tribes.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed today to eliminate militant groups in Anbar.
Militant power rising
US forces suffered almost one-third of their total Iraq fatalities in Anbar, according to independent website icasualties.org.
But two years after US forces withdrew from the country, the power of militants in the province is again rising.
ISIL is the latest incarnation of an Al-Qaeda affiliate that lost ground from 2006, as Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents joined US troops against jihadists in a process that began in Anbar and came to be known as the “Awakening.”
But the group has made a striking comeback following the US withdrawal and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had long sought the closure of the protest camp, dubbing it a “headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda.”
But its removal has caused a sharp decline in the security situation.
And while the closure has removed a physical sign of Sunni Arab grievances, the perceived injustices that underpinned the protest have not been addressed.
Violence in Iraq last year reached a level not seen since 2008, when it was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.