BAGHDAD — Days of fighting between black-clad Al Qaeda militants and Iraq’s security forces took a short-lived respite Friday as a veneer of calm returned to Fallujah, where traffic police and street cleaners resumed work and mosque loudspeakers exhorted stores to reopen so hungry residents could buy food.
But just as quickly, the calm evaporated when the militants appeared at the close of Friday prayer — which had been moved by local imams to a public park, away from the combat zones — and seized the stage, waving the Al Qaeda flag and daring the Iraqi authorities to evict them.
“We declare Fallujah as an Islamic state, and we call on you to be on our side!” one fighter shouted to the crowd, according to witness accounts.
Referring to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government and its Shi’ite ally, Iran, the fighter shouted, “We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids,” a reference to the Persian Empire that ruled present-day Iran and Iraq hundreds of years ago.
“We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule,” he shouted.
From that moment, mayhem resumed in Fallujah and other areas of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, including in its largest city, Ramadi, in an escalating fight.
It has pitted Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni extremists, who now control large areas in the desert province, against the security forces of the Shi’ite-dominated central government, backed by local tribesmen who are not strong supporters of the government but, in this struggle, have decided to side with the army and police against Al Qaeda.
The fight has become a severe test of Maliki’s ability to keep the country together and prevent a full-scale eruption of civil war.
The combat scenes that have played out in Anbar, which had been the heart of the Sunni insurgency during the US occupation and where more than 1,300 US troops were killed, have provided the sharpest evidence yet of a country descending into a maelstrom of violence, just two years after the departure of the last US soldiers.
For the Al Qaeda militants in Iraq, who are fighting under the same name as the most extremist Sunni rebels in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the gains they have made in Anbar represent a significant step toward realizing the long-held goal of transforming Iraq and Syria into one battlefield for the same cause: establishing a Sunni Islamist state.
As fighting resumed Friday, militants blew up several government buildings in Fallujah, including the police headquarters, the local council and office of the mayor, according to a security official. Militants also retook areas that had been liberated by security forces and their tribal allies. In one reclaimed area of Fallujah, a militant said over a mosque loudspeaker, “We are God’s rule on earth, no one can defeat God’s will!”
Sheikh Majed al-Jerasi, a tribal leader whose men are fighting with the government, said that in his area of Fallujah on Friday, tribesmen and police commanders regrouped after the fighting resumed, and then stormed the main street of the city, retaking a municipal building, where by nightfall his men were holed up.
At night, Mohamed al-Isawi, the head of the Fallujah police, said in a telephone interview that he was gathering men in an area north of Fallujah as a staging ground for what he hoped would be a decisive battle to retake full control of the city.
“We succeeded today with the tribesmen in getting back the main street of Fallujah after a big fight,” he said, “and now we are keen to fight the terrorists and liberate our city from any traces of the criminals.”
But Friday night, many signs suggested the militants still had the advantage, as they blew up power stations in Ramadi and Fallujah and ordered residents not to run their generators, plunging the cities into almost total darkness.
An Iraqi special forces soldier reached by telephone Friday said he was holed up with his men at a college campus in Ramadi, sending targeting information for airstrikes to superiors. The soldier, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, described fierce fighting Friday, and said his patrol had been targeted by suicide bombers. “We have orders to kill any gunmen in the street,” he said. “When we catch one, we kill him immediately. There is no arrest.”
The Iraqi government has reportedly used airstrikes, from Russian helicopters the government recently bought.