BAGHDAD — Sunni militants fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda appeared to make gains across Anbar province today, using snipers and rocket-propelled grenades in heavy street fighting, as they secured nearly full control of Fallujah and captured the strategic town Karma. Government forces and the tribal militias fighting with them seemed unable to resist the militants’ advances.
One senior police official in Anbar said today that “Fallujah is completely under the control of al-Qaeda.” Other reports suggested that some areas on the city’s outskirts were still being contested, while government forces positioned themselves outside Fallujah. They shelled the city throughout Friday night and into the morning, killing at least 19 civilians and wounding dozens more, according to a hospital official in Fallujah. Civilians, terrified and running low on food, were fleeing the major cities to desert villages and, in some cases, to the homes of relatives in Baghdad.
The fighting that has been going on for days has proved to be a crucial test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which is facing an escalating Sunni-led insurgency that threatens to tear the country apart. The unrest and the seeming inability of the Iraqi government forces, who were trained and equipped by the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, to quell it underscores the steady deterioration of Iraq’s security since the last U.S. troops left two years ago.
Over that time, Iraq’s Sunnis have become increasingly disenchanted with the policies of al-Maliki’s government, which has alienated Sunni leaders and carried out mass arrests of Sunni citizens in an effort to find insurgents. Such actions have made it harder for the government to halt the resurgence of al-Qaeda here. While many Sunnis may not be sympathetic to the militants, they are also reluctant to support the central government in ways that could help improve security, such as providing intelligence.
At the same time, while some Sunni tribal militias are fighting against the militants alongside the security forces, in other cases tribesmen are reportedly battling the government with al-Qaeda, creating a complex, three-way fight in some areas.
Now that militants control nearly all of Fallujah and have secured major areas of Ramadi, the province’s largest city, Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar.
In Washington, the State Department condemned the militants’ “barbarism against civilians of Ramadi and Fallujah,” and said that the United States was working with the Iraqi government to support the tribes fighting the militants “in every possible way.”