First Published: 2014-01-16
BAGHDAD - Deadly clashes erupted in Iraq's crisis-hit western province of Anbar on Thursday as security forces assaulted a militant stronghold while mortars in the city of Fallujah killed two people.
The fighting came a day after gunmen, including those linked to Al-Qaeda, wrested control of two key areas in the predominantly Sunni province as diplomats urged Iraqi authorities to pursue political reconciliation with the disaffected Sunni minority to end the weeks-long standoff and a protracted surge in nationwide bloodshed.
But with parliamentary elections looming in April, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled out dialogue with fighters, who control parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi and all of Fallujah, which lies on Baghdad's doorstep.
Around 3,000 security personnel, comprised of units from the elite Golden Brigade linked to Maliki's office, and the interior ministry's Rapid Intervention Force, attacked an alleged militant camp in Albubali, an area comprising villages and rural farmland between Ramadi and Fallujah.
The forces were backed by tanks and aircraft, according to a senior police officer and a policeman, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The main target is to take control of this area (Albubali)," the officer said.
He said they also aimed to recover the bodies of eight members of the security forces -- four of whom have been missing for several days and have since been confirmed dead, and four others who were killed when a booby-trapped house collapsed on them.
Clashes were also reported just west of Fallujah overnight, while two mortars in the city killed two people. It was unclear who took part in the clashes, or who was responsible for the shelling.
Fighting initially broke out in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been involved in the fighting along with anti-government tribal fighters. The government, meanwhile, has recruited its own tribal allies.
The crisis marks the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
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