Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group have gained ground in western Iraq, overrunning several villages on the edge of the capital of Anbar province, police sources and local officials say.
Iraqi police came under attack from the fighters at dawn on Wednesday in Albu Ghanim and withdrew from the area, about 5km northeast of the provincial capital Ramadi, sending hundreds of families fleeing.
In the latest violence on Thursday, 10 Iraqi soldiers were reportedly killed in clashes in Karma, west of Baghdad.
The fighters blew up the police station in Albu Ghanim and advanced further towards Ramadi, seizing the villages of Sofia, Albu Khalifa and Sor, police sources and members of the provincial council told Reuters news agency.
“[ISIL fighters] stopped us and said we have came to liberate you,” Abu Jasim told Reuters.
The fighters’ push comes after ISIL was dealt a major blow earlier this month, when Iraqi troops and allied militias retook Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
Ramadi, about 115km west of Baghdad, is mostly held by Iraqi government forces, although ISIL fighters control some parts of it, mainly on the outskirts.
An Iraqi intelligence official told the AP news agency that the fighters were preparing to launch an offensive from the western side of the city, describing the situation as “critical”.
ISIL was also trying to take control of the main highway that goes through Ramadi to cut off supplies, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
Sabah Karhout, the head of Anbar’s provincial council, said Iraqi forces needed help to fight ISIL.
“The battle is very big. The arrival of the reinforcement is not enough,” Karhout said.
“There is huge pressure from ISIL on Anbar and they want a quick victory … but we will stop them.”
Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh, reporting from Baghdad, said around three-quarters of Anbar province was under ISIL’s control. He said the Iraqi government’s plans to retake Anbar and Mosul may be delayed, given its stated need for additional preparation and weapons.
“Iraq has asked the US for Apache attack helicopters, drones and fighter jets. [But] that demand is unlikely to be met anytime soon,” our correspondent said.