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, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jails, and occupying mosques. The government rushed in military reinforcements.
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 important battlegrounds during the US-led war in Iraq and remain hotbeds of Sunni extremism.
The violence in Ramadi and Fallujah had implications 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.
That fighting, and a deadly bombing in Beirut on Thursday, provided 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.
For the United States, which two years ago withdrew its forces from Iraq as officials claimed the country was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds historical significance. It was the place of America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the war. Nearly one-third of the US soldiers killed during the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Fallujah, in the bloodiest street-to-street combat US troops had faced since Vietnam.
As Iraq descended into civil war during the US 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. A US pact with those Anbar tribesmen in 2007 — to pay them to switch sides and fight alongside the United States against Al Qaeda — became known as the Awakening. That pact was credited with turning the tide of the war.
Abu Risha, a leading tribal sheikh in Ramadi, was perhaps the Americans’ most stalwart partner, and even today he is likely to show visitors the plaques he received from US officers and old pictures of him with US soldiers, even as he speaks of what he calls betrayal by the United States for leaving without finishing the job.
In a statement released this week, he exhorted his men to again fight Al Qaeda, and hinted at business left unfinished by the Americans, who diminished the insurgency but never extinguished it.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
It was unclear, amid the unfolding chaos, to determine an exact number of casualties, but officials in hospitals in Anbar reported at least 35 people were killed Thursday and more than 70 were wounded. Security officials in Anbar said the total killed over several days of fighting was 108, including 31 civilians and 35 militants. The rest of the dead were Iraqi security force members.
The fighting began after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, ordered security forces to dismantle protest encampments in Fallujah and Ramadi.
The order came after fighting erupted following the government’s arrest of a prominent Sunni lawmaker who had been a supporter of the protests, which had been going on for more than a year and had become an outlet for disenchanted Sunnis angered over their treatment by Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government. The arrest attempt set off a firefight that left several bodyguards and the brother of the lawmaker dead, and led to 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, 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 to try 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.
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 hideouts.
“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.”