Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sunni tribal fighters backed by the Iraqi army continued to battle militants for control of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq on Saturday and Sunday, following their seizure by militants earlier in the week.
Iraqi security forces bombarded targets reported to be hideouts of members of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Bou Faraj village on the outskirts of Ramadi on Saturday, while Sunni members of the Al-Sahwa militias battled militants on the city’s edges on Sunday.
Fallujah was reported to be “calm” on Sunday, though militants remain in control of the city center, according to reports by news agencies.
The head of the Iraqi Army’s forces in the province, Lt. Gen. Rasheed Feleih, told Iraqi state TV on Sunday that it would take at least two days to fully secure the cities, and that local tribal fighters were doing most of the fighting, backed by logistical and air support from the regular armed forces.
Violence erupted in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah last week when militants, including members of Al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS, attacked police stations in the cities, expelling Iraqi army troops and police.
The move followed a year of mounting tensions between Sunni Anbar residents and the central government in Baghdad, with the former accusing Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government and the security forces of sectarian discrimination. The break-up of a protest camp in Ramadi and the arrest of a prominent Sunni MP last Monday reportedly sparked off the latest round of violence.
Maliki agreed to pull the army out of Anbar’s provinces at the end of last week, and has allowed local Sunni tribal militias to take the lead in combating the militants.
The militias, known variously as the Sons of Iraq or the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, were originally set up to combat Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2005–2006, but relations between the movement and the Iraqi government have been tense.
A senior member of the constituent assembly of the Sons of Iraq militia, Faris Ibrahim, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there was coordination between the security forces and the residents and tribal leaders regarding this issue, in preparation for eradicating these terrorist organizations from Anbar Province.”
He added that battles were taking place on the outskirts of the town and that life inside Ramadi was almost normal, despite the presence of some pockets of ISIS fighters in some districts.
Ibrahim said “the Bou Jaber district was one of the most important areas for Al-Qaeda and ISIS, but in the end they will be unable to resist the uprising of the residents of Anbar.”
He added that “the decisive battle will be in Fallujah, because ISIS was there and is almost in complete control of it. However, after ending the Ramadi battle, all sights will be directed towards Fallujah.”
French news agency AFP quoted an unnamed senior Iraqi official in Anbar saying that “Fallujah is completely out of the state control and under the control of ISIS.” The agency’s correspondent in the city said there were no Iraqi army troops or Sahwa forces currently present in the city, and that sporadic clashes were taking place on the outskirts.
In Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, commander of the Iraqi army land forces, Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, said that in addition to ISIS and groups such as Sahwa and the tribes who support the police and the Iraqi army, a third group was now involved in the fighting: the Military Council announced on Friday in Fallujah.
Armed groups including the Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution, and the Mujahidin Consultative Council, among others, announced on Friday the establishment of the Military Council in order to coordinate the fighting against the Iraqi security forces. The Council’s relationship with ISIS was not made clear, however.
In Baghdad, Iraqiya List MPs have asked the government to support the Anbar tribes and withdraw the army from its cities, a key point of contention with Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, while some MPs traded accusations of involvement in the violence.
Iraqiya List MP Hamed Al-Mutlaq said in a news conference on Saturday that “we call on the political forces and their leaders to meet their responsibilities regarding the events in Al-Anbar.” He stressed the importance of ending the artillery and mortar bombardment on Anbar cities, especially Fallujah, adding: “We call on the army to withdraw from the cities and work hard to deal with the deterioration of security.”
State of Law MP Yasin Majid questioned whether there was coordination between the Sunni-dominated Mutahidoun Coalition and ISIS. Majid said in a news conference on Saturday that “the murderers of ISIS have appeared in Anbar and they kill and slaughter after the withdrawal of the army following the call by Mutahidoun. So, is there coordination between them?”
“Is the Iraqi Army an occupation army? Is it an enemy of Mutahidoun?” he asked further.