Qaeda-linked fighters control parts of two Iraq cities
RAMADI, Iraq - Agence France-Presse
AFP PhotoMilitants linked to Al-Qaeda on Thursday controlled half of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, after days of violence that erupted as a protest camp was removed.
Clashes first broke out in the Ramadi area on Monday as security forces tore down the country's main Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp near the city west of Baghdad, and continued for two days.
The violence also spread to nearby Fallujah, and security forces have since withdrawn from some areas of both Anbar province cities, which were once hubs of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, giving the jihadists free rein.
"Half of Fallujah is in the hands of ISIL (the Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group, and the other half is in the control of" armed tribesmen, an interior ministry official told AFP.
A witness said that militants had set up checkpoints, each manned by six to seven people, in central and south Fallujah.
"In Ramadi, it is similar -- some areas are controlled by ISIL and other areas are controlled by" tribesmen, the ministry official said, referring to the provincial capital farther to the west.
An AFP journalist in Ramadi saw dozens of trucks carrying heavily armed men in the east of the city, playing songs praising ISIL.
Lyrics included "The Islamic State remains" and "Our State is victorious".
The militants also carried black flags of a type frequently flown by ISIL.
The unrest has led to hardship in Ramadi.
"We are not leaving our homes because of what is happening," said one resident, Abdel Nasser.
"There is no food. Even if you manage to go to the market, you find nothing," he said.
On Wednesday, militants and security forces in Ramadi clashed sporadically, with four police stations torched, but the fighting had subsided by Thursday, the AFP journalist said.
In Fallujah, police abandoned most of their positions on Wednesday and militants burned some police stations, seized weapons and freed more than 100 prisoners, officers said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had on Tuesday announced that soldiers would withdraw from restive cities in Anbar province, but he reversed the decision the following day.
However, army forces on Thursday remained outside both Ramadi and Fallujah, security officials said.
Maliki had long wanted the removal of the protest camp, which he called a "headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda", but doing so has come at the cost of a sharp decline in the security situation in Anbar.
While the camp's closure has removed a physical sign of deep-seated grievances among Sunni Arabs, their complaints of being marginalised by the Shiite-led authorities and unfairly targeted by security forces remain unaddressed.
There has also been political fallout from the situation in Anbar, with 44 MPs, most of them Sunni, announcing on Monday that they had submitted their resignations, and calling for "the withdrawal of the army from the cities and the release of MP Ahmed al-Alwani".
Alwani, a Sunni Arab MP who was a leading supporter of the protest camp, was arrested in a raid on his Ramadi home on Saturday in which his brother, five guards and a security forces member died -- another incident that has raised tensions.
There has been no announcement so far as to whether or not the MPs' resignations have been accepted. Protests broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq in late 2012 after the arrest of guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab, on terrorism charges.
The demonstrations have continued for more than a year.