Iraqi jets target armed groups in Anbar

Raids escalate violence in province, where armed men now control two key cities as they battle troops.

Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen fought al-Qaeda-linked gunmen controlling two of the country’s main Sunni cities, Fallujah and Ramadi.

The Defence Ministry released footage on Thursday that showed jets targeting fighters suspected of belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), a group linked to al-Qaeda.

Troops hammered the armed groups with Hellfire rockets recently sent by the United States to help the government’s fight against al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, which also operates with increasing strength in Syria’s civil war across the border.

There have been clashes between the Iraqi military and gunmen in Anbar province triggered by the latters claiming control of several police stations there just days earlier.

Iraq suffers highest death toll in years.

An Interior Ministry official told AFP news agency on Thursday that al-Qaeda-linked fighters were in control of large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the provincial capital.

“Half of Fallujah is in the hands of ISIL (al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group, and the other half is in the control of” armed tribesmen, the official said.

In central and south Fallujah, witnesses said fighters had also set up checkpoints each manned by six to seven people.

“In Ramadi, it is similar – some areas are controlled by ISIL and other areas are controlled by” tribesmen, the interior ministry official said, referring to the Anbar provincial capital, which lies farther to the west.

Fighters attacked on Wednesday the main police station in Fallujah and ordered its staff to leave, before raiding its armoury and freeing 101 prisoners from its cells, police said.

Other police stations in the city were torched by fighters as most police abandoned their posts.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister, ordered on Wednesday reinforcements to the mainly Sunni Arab province to tackle attacks by armed groups, reversing a decision just a day earlier to withdraw soldiers from Anbar cities and hand over control to police.

Other attacks 

In other violence outside Anbar, a pickup truck laden with explosives blew up on a busy commercial street on Thursday evening in the city of Balad Ruz, 70km northeast of Baghdad, destroying several shops. 

At least 19 people were killed and 37 were wounded, according to the security officials and health officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press.

In other attacks on Thursday, a bomb stuck onto a public minibus exploded in Baghdad’s Shaab district, killing four people and wounding six. 

Three soldiers were killed and five were wounded in a bombing of their patrols in the northern city of Mosul, the officials said.

Fighters also carried out two attacks in Latifiyah, a mainly Sunni town 30km south of Baghdad, the officials said. A bombing of an outdoor vegetable market killed five civilians and wounded nine others. 

In the other attack, two soldiers were killed and five others were wounded when their post came under gunfire. 

Three fighters were killed in the exchange of fire.

Political fallout 

Ali al-Sarai, a political commentator in Baghdad, told Reuters news agency, that this was a crossing point for armed groups from Iraq to Syria, and vice-versa. 

“In view of that fact, there is a joint co-ordination between Iraq, Jordan and the US, and that’s why these military 
operations and air strikes were launched in the desert,” he said.

The fighting broke out on Monday when security forces tore down a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp outside Ramadi.

The removal of the protest camp was seen as a victory for Maliki, who had long wanted it gone and had termed it a “headquarters for the leadership of al-Qaeda”.

But it has carried a high price, not only in terms of the deteriorating security situation in Anbar, but also in the political fallout.

Forty-four MPs announced on Monday that they had submitted their resignations, and called 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 supporters of the protest camp, was arrested in a raid on his home in Ramadi on Saturday in which his brother, five guards and a security forces member died.

Protests broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq late last year after the arrest of guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab, on terrorism charges.

The arrests were seen by Sunnis as yet another example of the Shia-led Maliki government targeting their leaders.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies