Over 100,000 people have fled fighting in Anbar province as fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group advanced on Ramadi.

This comes after officials sent out a warning that the city could fall.

Many of those wound up in Baghdad and brought with them tales of brutality and woe. Some, however, were more blunt, blaming th‎e government for letting Anbar descend into chaos and therefore allowing ISIL to take huge chunks of the province.

But why is Ramadi so important?

For a start it's symbolic.

‎It's the largest city in Anbar and is the capital of the province.

According to official statistics, it's home to around 500,000 people and it is predominately Sunni.

It was here between 2012 and 2013 that protests against the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the then prime minister, began that sparked sectarian tensions after his forces moved in to quell the protests.

At the time some in his government said the protests were allowing al-Qaeda to re-emerge in Anbar.

'Heart of Anbar'

After an agreement was reached between the protesters and the government, tensions calmed down. But there were still some who claimed that the promises made to the Sunnis had not been kept and tensions soon resurfaced.

Anti-government Sunni tribes began to agitate and when ISIL arrived, the group found some sympathisers and began to take towns in the province.

However, its importance has been played down by some including senior US officials.

The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, speaking ‎at a news conference on April 16, said of Ramadi: "The city is not symbolic in any way. It has not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq."

His words were met with disdain here in Iraq, particularly by the Sunni community who feel they have not been given enough help by either the US or the Iraqi government to battle ISIL.

One Iraqi diplomatic ‎source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me: "Ramadi is the heart of Anbar. What happens if you destroy the heart? The whole body dies."

The Iraqi security forces have clearly taken the lead in the fighting in and around Anbar province and have been backed by some US air strikes.

Sunni concerns

Right now the fighting remains intense ‎and the Iraqis have managed to recapture a key bridge over the Euphrates River.

Some of those who fled the fighting have also returned as Iraqi security forces have recaptured the centre of Ramadi city and pushed the fighters back.

Getting rid of ISIL from Anbar is essential if the group is to be defeated, but this cannot be achieved without
addressing Sunni concerns about not being given enough support.

Haider al-Abbadi, Iraqi prime minister, has publicly stated that Sunni concerns will be addressed.

So far, many Sunni politicians and tribal leaders say that this is just lip service and hasn't translated into concrete action.

ISIL still remians a force to be reckoned with. On Friday it mounted an attack which killed three army officers and a general.

No one is expecting the ba‎ttle for Anbar to be over anytime soon, but without a significant ramping up of
resources and support for the Sunni tribes, there are fears that it could go on for much longer than it should.

Ramadi remains resilient for now, but if it falls it will come as a great tactical and symbolic victory for ISIL - and as an emblamatic failure for Iraq.

Displaced Sunnis, who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi, have swarmed to the outskirts of Baghdad [Reuters]

Source: Al Jazeera