Iraq has lost Fallujah to al-Qaeda-linked fighters, a senior security official said yesterday, putting militants who repeatedly battled US forces for the city back in control.
Parts of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, west of Baghdad, 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 marginalization and targeting of their community.
Anger at the Shiite-led government among the Sunni minority is seen as one of the main drivers of the worst violence to hit Iraq in five years.
“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 (ISIL).
However, the city’s outskirts were in the hands of local police, the official added.
In Ramadi, a witness said Iraqi special forces had deployed on Street 60, where ISIL militants were positioned the day before.
More than 100 people were killed on Friday in Ramadi and Fallujah, in the country’s deadliest single day in years.
Fourteen died in and near Ramadi on Monday and Tuesday, while later tolls were not immediately clear.
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.”
Fallujah was the target of two major assaults after the 2003 invasion, in which US forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.
US troops fought for years, aided by Sunni tribesmen in the Sahwa militia forces from late 2006, to wrest control of Anbar from militants.
US forces suffered almost one-third of their total Iraq fatalities in Anbar, according to independent Web site icasualties.org.