5 Jan 2014

Iraq loses Fallujah to al-Qaeda

US Secretary of State John Kerry says America will help Iraq fight al-Qaeda-linked militants – but not with troops – after the government loses control of the key city of Fallujah.

Iraqi government forces battling an al-Qaeda offensive launched an air strike on Ramadi city on Sunday, killing 25 Islamist militants, according to local officials.

The move came after local government officials in western Anbar province met tribal leaders to urge them to help repel al-Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, strategic Iraqi cities on the Euphrates river.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Iraq’s government and tribes would be successful in their fight against al-Qaeda, and said Washington was not considering sending troops back to Iraq, two years after the withdrawal.

The al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has been steadily tightening its grip in the vast Sunni-dominated Anbar province in recent months in a bid to create a Sunni Muslim state straddling the frontier with Syria.

Sunni insurgents gained ground

But last week’s capture of positions in Ramadi and large parts of Fallujah was the first time in years that Sunni insurgents had taken ground in the province’s major cities and held their positions for days.

Local officials and tribal leaders in Ramadi said that 25 suspected militants were killed in the air force strike, which targeted eastern areas of the city early on Sunday.

“As a local government we are doing our best to avoid sending the army to Fallujah…. now we are negotiating outside the city with the tribes to decide how to enter the city without allowing the army to be involved,” said Falih Eisa, a member of Anbar’s provincial council.

Tension has been running high across Anbar – which borders Syria and was the heart of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency after the 2003 US-led invasion – since Iraqi police broke up a Sunni protest last week, resulting in deadly clashes.

In Fallujah, ISIL’s task has been made easier by disgruntled tribesmen who have joined its fight against the government.

Snipers positioned to attack

Further west, across the porous border in Syria, al-Qaeda fighters have captured swathes of land in the north and are battling with other Islamist brigades as well as the Syrian army.

In Ramadi, where tribesmen and the army have been working together to counter the al-Qaeda insurgents, ISIL snipers positioned themselves on rooftops and fought small battles in the city.

ISIL fighters held on to their positions in the outskirts of Fallujah and have used police and government vehicles inside the city for patrols, some flying a black flag associated with al-Qaeda from the vehicles.