BAGHDAD — Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened Thursday to seize control of Fallujah and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, torching police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas.
Dressed in black and waving the flag of Al Qaeda, the militants put out calls over mosque loudspeakers for men to join their struggle in both cities in western Anbar province, which were hugely important battlegrounds during the 2003-2011 U.S.-led war in Iraq and remain hotbeds of Sunni extremism.
The fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah had implications that extended beyond Anbar’s borders, as the Sunni militants fought beneath the same banner as the most hard-line jihadists in Syria — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
That fight, and a deadly bombing in Beirut on Thursday, was the latest evidence that the Syrian civil war was breeding bloodshed and sectarian violence around the region, destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq while fueling a resurgence of radical Islamist fighters.
It was unclear, amid the unfolding chaos, to determine an exact number of casualties, but officials in hospitals in Anbar reported that at least 35 people had been killed Thursday and that more than 70 others had been wounded.
The fighting began several days ago after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, ordered security forces to dismantle protest encampments in Fallujah and Ramadi.
That order came just after fighting erupted following the government’s arrest of a prominent Sunni lawmaker who had been a supporter of the protests, which had been ongoing for more than a year and became an outlet for disenchanted Sunnis angered by their treatment by the Shiite-dominated central government led by al-Maliki. The arrest attempt sparked a firefight that left several bodyguards and the brother of the lawmaker dead, and set off clashes between the government and armed tribesmen.
Officials later seemed to have calmed the situation, and in a deal between local tribal leaders and the central government, al-Maliki agreed to withdraw the army from Anbar on Tuesday.
But as soon as any traces of government authority vanished, large numbers of Al Qaeda-aligned fighters swarmed the cities, and by Wednesday the prime minister had reversed his decision, sending troops back and trying to secure the support of local tribal leaders — who just the day before had sent their men to the streets to fight the government — offering them guns and money to join forces with the regular army.
Abu Risha, a local tribal leader who had been a leader of the Awakening, the units of tribesmen that switched sides in 2007 and joined the Americans to fight Al Qaeda, issued a statement urging local men to take up arms again against Al Qaeda.
“We were all surprised that the terrorists left the desert and entered your cities to return a second time, to commit their crimes, to cut off the heads, blow up houses, kill scholars and disrupt life.
“They came back, and I am delighted for their public appearance after the security forces failed to find them. Let this time be the decisive confrontation with Al Qaeda.”
In a telephone interview Thursday, one tribal fighter loyal to the government, Abu Omar, described heavy clashes across Fallujah, and said the government had started shelling militant hide-outs.
“We told all the families to leave their houses,” he said over the phone, with the sound of gunfire in the background. “Many of the families fled from the city, and others are still unable to because of the heavy clashes. We have reports that the hospital in Fallujah is full of dead and wounded people.”
As Iraq descended in to civil war during the U.S. occupation, the epicenter of the unrest was in the desert region of Anbar, a restive cradle of Sunni discontent where swaggering tribesmen defied authority even under Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces fought some of the most intense battles of the war in Anbar.
Now, fighting has flared again, with heavy battles for the fourth straight day Thursday, heightening fears that Iraq is descending in to the type of sectarian civil war that it once faced and is currently raging in Syria.
The chaos in Anbar has underscored the steady deterioration of Iraq’s security in the two years since the withdrawal of U.S. forces. With Iraqi casualty rates at their highest in five years, the United States has rushed to provide the Iraqi government with new missiles and surveillance drones to combat the resurgence of Al Qaeda.
Analysts have long worried that the war in Syria would engulf Iraq, as hard-line Sunni rebels in Syria have said they see the two countries as one battlefield in the fight for Sunni dominance. For some time, the Syria war has dragged in Iraqis along sectarian lines, with Iraqi Shiites rushing to Syria to support President Bashar Assad, and Iraq’s Al Qaeda affiliate fostering the most extremist Sunni fighting units across the border.
These fears of spillover have been most acute in Anbar’s ungovernable desert, which borders Syria and where tribal loyalties cut across borders, making it fertile territory for Al Qaeda’s resurgence.
Earlier in the week, many tribesmen fought against the government, following the arrest of the Sunni lawmaker and the dismantling of the protest tents, but when Al Qaeda returned to the cities of Anbar many quickly switched sides.
“We don’t want to be like Syria,” said Sheikh Omar Al-Asabi, who led a group of fighting men in an area east of Fallujah.