Al-Qaeda-linked militants held control of much of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and other nearby towns, fighting off efforts by troops with air support to regain control, according to a witness.
The al-Qaeda fighters have seized military equipment provided by the U.S. Marines to Fallujah police, whose headquarters have been taken over, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city in Iraq's western Anbar province, said in a phone interview late yesterday. There's no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is taking place on a highway that links the city to Baghdad, he said.
Halima Ahmed, a health official in the province, said by phone that the death toll in Fallujah in the past three days of fighting has reached 36, mostly civilians killed by army shelling. The military also has carried out air strikes targeting suspected al-Qaeda fighters, Al Jazeera said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge militants from Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, a focus of the 2007 "surge" of U.S. forces. The fighting there is part of an escalation of violence in Iraq, where 2013 saw the most civilian casualties for five years amid the kind of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that also has engulfed Syria and Lebanon.
The war to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam who's backed by Iran, is being fought by largely Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest Sunni power.
The Sunni gunmen in Anbar, which neighbors Syria, are linked to an al-Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also fighting Assad. The U.S. has stepped up arms supplies to help Maliki's Shiite-led government suppress the group, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
"If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that's a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they'd have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about," said Crocker who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. "It's exactly what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11."
There is little support in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after the Bush administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending the war in Iraq as one of his main accomplishments.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, with almost 18,000 wounded, according to the United Nations Assistance Misison for Iraq.
The Pentagon is "keeping an eye on the situation," a spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He said the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraqi authorities in accordance with the security framework agreement between the countries, without giving details.
So far, the violence hasn't affected Iraq's major oil fields, the country's main source of revenue. Output rose by 100,000 barrels a day last month to 3.2 million barrels, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey. The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
Anbar province has been a battleground pitting the army, assisted by some Sunni tribesmen, against militants who have torched buildings and police stations. Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of Iraq's parliament resigning because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests.