Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja
By Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, NY Times, January 4, 2014
BAGHDAD—Sunni militants fighting under the banner of Al Qaeda appeared to make gains across Anbar Province on Saturday, using snipers and rocket-propelled grenades in heavy street fighting as they secured nearly full control of Falluja and captured the strategic town Karma. Government forces and the tribal militias fighting with them seemed unable to resist the militants’ advances.
One senior police official in Anbar said Saturday that “Falluja is completely under the control of Al Qaeda.” Other reports suggested that some areas on the city’s outskirts were still being contested, while government forces positioned themselves outside Falluja. They shelled the city throughout Friday night and into Saturday morning, killing at least 19 civilians and wounding dozens more, according to a hospital official in Falluja. Civilians, terrified and running low on food, were fleeing the major cities to desert villages and, in some cases, to the homes of relatives in Baghdad.
The fighting that has been going on for days has proved to be a crucial test for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which is facing an escalating Sunni-led insurgency that threatens to tear the country apart. The unrest and the seeming inability of the Iraqi government forces, who were trained and equipped by the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, to quell it underscores the steady deterioration of Iraq’s security since the last American troops left two years ago.
Over that time, Iraq’s Sunnis have become increasingly disenchanted with the policies of Mr. Maliki’s government, which has alienated Sunni leaders and carried out mass arrests of Sunni citizens in an effort to find insurgents. Such actions have made it harder for the government to halt the resurgence of Al Qaeda here.
While many Sunnis may not be sympathetic to the militants, they are also reluctant to support the central government in ways that could help improve security, such as providing intelligence.
At the same time, while some Sunni tribal militias are fighting against the militants alongside the security forces, in other cases tribesmen are reportedly battling the government with Al Qaeda, creating a complex, three-way fight in some areas.
Now that militants control nearly all of Falluja and have secured major areas of Ramadi, the province’s largest city, Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar. It stretches west to Syria, where the Iraqi militants’ allies in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Qaeda affiliate often referred to as ISIS, are waging their own insurgency.
In a speech in Baghdad on Saturday, Mr. Maliki vowed to press on. “Fighting in Anbar Province will continue until cleared of all armed militants,” he said. “There will be no retreat before finishing the job.”
In Washington, the State Department condemned the militants’ “barbarism against civilians of Ramadi and Falluja,” and said that the United States was working with the Iraqi government to support the tribes fighting ISIS “in every possible way.”
On Saturday, according to police officials in Anbar, militants took control of Karma, a town between Falluja and Ramadi, after several hours of clashes.
Police officials and witnesses in Anbar reported that militants had in several cases ambushed convoys of troops and seized heavy weapons. On Friday night, gunmen ambushed an army patrol just north of Falluja, killing four soldiers and making off with eight Humvees, according to a police official.
A heavy firefight also erupted on the main highway linking Baghdad and Anbar, with fighters taking three tanks and other military vehicles, according to police officials.
The fighters, though, apparently did not know how to use the tanks, and put out a call over a mosque’s loudspeaker: “If anyone knows how to drive a tank, please come to the mosque.”