Iraqi forces backed by aircraft and Sunni tribal militias launched assaults to expel al-Qaeda-linked militants from two key towns in Anbar province after they seized police stations and other buildings.
The air strikes targeted fighters suspected of belonging to an al-Qaeda offshoot in Ramadi and Fallujah, Al Jazeera said, citing video footage released by the country’s Defense Ministry. Iraqi forces later recaptured Fallujah’s police headquarters, Al Arabiya television reported. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge the militants from the cities, which were one focus of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces.
At least 32 people have been killed in the latest clashes in Anbar, Arabiya said today.
The fighting follows an upsurge in violence in Iraq, with 2013 proving the bloodiest in terms of civilian casualties for five years. Worsening security in the country is matched by instability across the region, as sectarian violence rises in Lebanon and Syria, where Sunni and Shiite forces are also battling.
The gunmen in Anbar, which neighbors Syria, are linked to an al-Qaeda group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al Jazeera and the BBC reported. The U.S., which last month described ISIL as the “common enemy” of Iraq and the U.S., has stepped up arms supplies to Maliki’s government, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if Sunni al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
“If al-Qaeda 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 public or political 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 Bush administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending the war in Iraq as one of his primary accomplishments.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, rivaling the 6,787 in 2008, according to data compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. An additional 17,981 civilians were wounded last year, compared with 20,178 in 2008, the UN said.
The war to depose Syrian President Bashar al-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.
“We’ve seen the kind of terrorist violence we’ve seen in Syria, and that’s certainly spilled over into Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a briefing yesterday. “We are very concerned about it. That’s why we’re engaged consistently with the Iraqis to help fight it together.”
The Pentagon is “keeping an eye on the situation,” spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters in Washington today. He said the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraqi authorities in accordance with the security framework agreement between the countries, without giving details.
So far, the violence hasn’t affected Iraq’s major oil fields, the country’s main source of revenue. Iraqi output increased by 100,000 barrels a day to 3.2 million barrels last month, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey of oil companies, producers and analysts. The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
Iraq’s Anbar province has been a battleground between the Iraqi armed forces and Sunni militants who have torched buildings and police stations. Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of Iraq’s parliament resigning because the government used force to dismantle protests in Anbar.
Tribesmen and security forces battled militants from ISIL in Ramadi today, the official state-run al-Iraqiya television station said, citing an unnamed security official. Meanwhile, exchanges in Fallujah have shifted to locations in the western suburbs, Fadhel al-Badrani, a Baghdad University journalism professor and resident of the city, said in a phone interview.
“The fighting in the center of the city has ended,” he said in an interview. “Tribesman are engaging them outside the city.” Sunni tribesman attacked al-Qaeda in Fallujah after the expiry of an ultimatum to leave positions they seized in the city.
Sheikh Ali Mehaibes, a Sunni cleric, called during prayers today for residents of Fallujah to support the police force in fighting al-Qaeda and to protect government property, the Sunni-Muslim affiliated television channel, Al-Babiliya reported.
The Maliki government must “work with the population to fight these terrorists, to draw on some of the lessons, quite frankly, we learned when we were there, to isolate extremists,” said Harf, the State Department spokeswoman.
Iraq may need more than military supplies from the U.S., Crocker said. “There has been talk of increased intelligence assets, which is good,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.
Instead of selling U.S. F-16 jet fighters made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. Apache attack helicopters, the U.S. should look into equipping Iraqis with Mi-35 attack helicopters made by Moscow-based Russian Helicopters because Iraqis are more familiar with operating Russian equipment, said Crocker, who is dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
U.S. military assistance to Iraq may open the door to discussions about sending advisory teams of U.S. special operations forces, and others able to operate armed drones, Crocker said.