The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has claimed responsibility for killing 70 Iraqi soldiers and a policeman in Ameriyat Fallujah, just west of the capital Baghdad.
The fighters stormed a compound in the city on Saturday with armoured vehicles. About 22 suicide bombers wearing explosive vests carried out the attacks.
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The attack began around 4am (01:00 GMT) when at least nine ISIL fighters, including four suicide attackers, infiltrated the town, police sources said.
The fighters took up positions in a disused residential complex and exchanged fire with army, police and Sunni tribal fighters charged with holding areas retaken from ISIL, also known as ISIS.
A police colonel said the attack was aimed at distracting security forces from closing in on Fallujah, which Iraqi forces have ringed for more than six months.
Police sources said all the assailants were killed in a battle lasting about three hours, but Shakir al-Essawi, the mayor, told Reuters news agency that security forces were searching for one fighter they suspected was still hiding out.
Factory takeover plot
In the latest development, Iraqi forces announced on Sunday that they foiled an attack aimed at taking control of a gas-cylinder factory in Taji, a town north of Baghdad.
Describing the incident, Brigadier-General Saad Maen, spokesman for the interior ministry, said: “Iraqi forces, in the early hours of this morning, foiled an attack carried out by a suicide car bomber and followed by six suicide bombers wearing explosives-packed vests who targeted the gas-cylinders factory in Taji town, north of Baghdad.
“Iraqi forces managed to killed and destroy from a distance the suicide car bomber and engage with the six suicide bombers and kill them before they could reach the factory.”
Against this background of deadly bombings, especially in Shia-dominated areas of Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, has blamed the ongoing political crisis for hampering the fight against ISIL.
Abadi’s government has been crippled for weeks since many political parties resisted a cabinet reshuffle aimed at fighting corruption.
‘Climate of dispute’
In a televised speech on Saturday, Abadi said that a “climate of dispute” had given the ISIL fighters space to operate in areas under nominal government control.
“The political conflict among politicians and their impact on the brave security forces permits acts of terrorism to occur,” he said.
Besides the Ameriyat Fallujah attack, an explosion on Saturday in southern Baghdad’s farm district of Madain killed two people and wounded seven, police sources said.
On Friday 16 people, mostly civilians, were killed north of Baghdad, a day after 17 soldiers died in blasts in the western city of Ramadi.
On Wednesday, suicide bombers killed at least 80 people, the highest daily toll in Baghdad this year.
Abadi dismissed claims that rival political parties were behind the violence and pinned the blame squarely on ISIL, which has been pushed out of key cities in recent months but still controls large areas it seized in 2014.
“This enemy is like an epidemic: no matter how hard you fight it, one or two cases remain that may show up and cause injury,” he said.
“This is what is happening.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hisham Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst, said Abadi’s hands are tied when it comes to making military and security decisions.
Most key security leaders are a product of the political system that depends on the sectarian and ethnic quota system, he said, and thus tend to be more loyal to their own affiliated groups as opposed to the state.
“Abadi therefore finds himself unable to replace those leaders or even speak to them without getting permission from their political parties or groups,” Hashimi said.
“Political crisis in Iraq will, for sure, prolong the fight against ISIL because of this kind of political environment.”