FALLUJAH - Iraq has lost Fallujah to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, a senior security official said Saturday, putting militants back in control of a city where American forces repeatedly battled insurgents.
Parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, have been held by militants for days, harkening back to the years after the 2003 US-led invasion when both cities were insurgent strongholds.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed Saturday to eliminate “all terrorist groups” in Iraq’s Anbar province, where militants have seized all of one city and parts of another. “We will not back down until we end all terrorist groups and save our people in Anbar,” Maliki was quoted as saying by Iraqiya state television.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area Monday, when security forces broke up an anti-government protest camp set up after demonstrations broke out in late 2012 against what 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 ISIL to move in. “Fallujah is under the control of ISIL,” a senior security official in Anbar province told AFP, referring to the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, the city’s outskirts were in the hands of local police, the official added. An AFP journalist inside Fallujah also said ISIL seemed to be in control, with no security forces or Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen visible on the streets. Meanwhile, Iraqi ground forces commander Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed told AFP that police and tribesmen were hunting for militants in Ramadi, with army support.
And he said authorities were working on “fixing the situation in Fallujah.” 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.” On Friday alone, more than 100 people were killed in Ramadi and Fallujah, in the country’s deadliest single day in years.
Hundreds of gunmen gathered at outdoor weekly Muslim prayers in central Fallujah on Friday, where one militant announced that “Fallujah is an Islamic state,” a witness said.
The city was the target of two major assaults after the 2003 invasion, in which American forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.
American 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 website icasualties.org. But two years after US forces withdrew from the country, the power of militants in the province is again rising.