WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD – Al-Qaida-linked militants maintained control of much of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and other nearby towns Friday, fighting off efforts by troops with air support to regain control, according to a witness.
The fighters have seized military equipment provided by the U.S. Marines to Fallujah police, whose headquarters have been seized, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city in Iraq’s western Anbar province, said in a phone interview late Friday. There’s no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is taking place on a highway that links the city to Baghdad, he said.
The overrunning of the cities last week by the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Sunni heartland of western Anbar province is a blow to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His government has been struggling to contain discontent among the Sunni minority over Shiite political domination that has flared into increased violence for the past year.
On Friday, al-Qaida gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah. A militant commander appeared among worshippers holding Friday prayers in the main city street, proclaiming that his fighters were there to defend Sunnis from the government, one resident said.
“We are your brothers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” militants circulating through the city in a stolen police car proclaimed through a loudspeaker, using the name of the al-Qaida branch. “We are here to protect you from the government. We call on you to cooperate with us.”
Government troops, backed by Sunni tribesmen who oppose al-Qaida, have encircled Fallujah for several days, and have entered parts of the provincial capital Ramadi, also overrun by militants. On Friday, troops bombarded militant positions outside Fallujah with artillery, a military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.
Halima Ahmed, a health official in the province, said by phone that the death toll in Fallujah over the past three days of fighting had reached 36, mostly civilians killed by army shelling. The military also has carried out airstrikes targeting suspected al-Qaida fighters, Al-Jazeera reported.
Al-Maliki sent reinforcements Wednesday to dislodge militants from Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, a focus of the 2007 “surge” in U.S. forces during the Iraq War.
Fallujah became notorious among Americans when insurgents in 2004 killed four American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a bridge.
The fighting there is part of an escalation of violence in the country, where 2013 saw the most civilian casualties in five years amid the kind of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that also has engulfed Syria and Lebanon.
The civil war to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam who’s backed by Iran, is being fought by largely Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest Sunni power.
The U.S. has stepped up arms supplies to help al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government suppress ISIS, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
While U.S. President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict where ISIS is also fighting Assad, Washington may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al-Qaida militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
“If al-Qaida manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. “It’s exactly what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11.”
There is little support in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after the administration of President George W. Bush invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending the war in Iraq as one of his main accomplishments.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, with almost 18,000 wounded, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
The Pentagon is “keeping an eye on the situation,” a spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, told reporters in Washington on Friday. He said the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraqi authorities in accordance with the security framework agreement between the countries, without giving details.
Anbar province has been a battleground pitting the army, assisted by some Sunni tribesmen, against militants who have torched buildings and police stations. Al-Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of Iraq’s parliament resigning because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protest camps.