BEIRUT — Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday the United States is ready to help Iraq in any way possible as that country began a major offensive to wrest control of two cities from Al Qaeda-linked militants. But he made it clear that no American troops would be sent.
Kerry described the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as ‘‘the most dangerous players’’ in the region. But as Iraqi forces launched airstrikes and clashed with the militants in western Anbar province on Sunday, Kerry said it was Iraq’s battle to fight.
The militants, formerly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq but renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to reflect the group’s growing ambitions, has also been extending its influence into Lebanon. It is suffering a backlash in Syria, where it lost ground to rival rebel fighters on Sunday. But the Sunni group’s gains in Iraq present a critical test for the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Their rejuvenation from a movement once declared all but vanquished in Iraq has also concerned the Obama administration.
A string of bombings in the Iraqi capital killed at least 20 people Sunday; although no one asserted responsibility, the attacks appeared linked to the fighting in Anbar. In that strategic province, meanwhile, the militants fought to retain their grip on the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which they seized last week.
The Iraqi army had encircled Fallujah on Sunday, poised for an assault. Thousands of residents fled, fearing an onslaught similar to the US military’s 2004 battle for the city, then held by Sunni insurgents. It was the most deadly confrontation of the Iraq war for US forces and some of their bloodiest fighting since Vietnam.
Meanwhile, in Ramadi, airstrikes killed 60 militants late Saturday, Iraq’s army chief, Lieutenant General Ali Ghaidan Majid, told the National Iraqi News Agency.
According to officials who spoke to the Reuters news agency, fighting on Sunday killed at least 22 soldiers and 12 civilians in Ramadi and left an unknown number of militants dead. Video footage released by the Iraqi Defense Ministry showed late-night strikes on what it said were militant vehicles and hideouts.
Kerry didn’t give details of what assistance the United States might provide but said it would do ‘‘everything that is possible.’’ After Maliki appealed in November for more US support in fighting extremists, Washington sent 75 Hellfire missiles and promised to dispatch drones.
‘‘This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,’’ Kerry said toward the end of a visit to Jerusalem. ‘‘We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.’’
A local journalist in Fallujah said Sunday that the Iraqi army was shelling militant positions and that civilian areas also had been hit.
‘‘It is back to the same as it was in 2004,’’ said the journalist, referring to the major US assaults.
‘‘Before 2004, there was only one cemetery in Fallujah. Afterwards, there were four cemeteries,’’ said the journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. ‘‘Now the people fear there will be eight cemeteries.’’
Although Fallujah remained under the militants’ control Sunday, their grip on Ramadi appeared to be weakening.
An Iraqi military commander said it would take two to three days to expel militants from the two cities. Lieutenant General Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Anbar Military Command, told state television that pro-government Sunni tribes are leading the operations while the army is offering aerial cover and logistics on the ground, the Associated Press reported.
The fall of Fallujah to the Al Qaeda-linked group prompted renewed criticism from US lawmakers of the Obama administration, which had planned to leave several thousand American troops in Iraq after the 2011 pullout for training and counterterrorism operations. But the deal fell apart when Iraq’s Parliament refused to guarantee the remaining US military personnel immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
‘‘The thousands of brave Americans who fought, shed their blood, and lost their friends to bring peace to Fallujah and Iraq are now left to wonder whether these sacrifices were in vain,’’ Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement Saturday.
The militants tightened grip on Anbar gives it a swath of land straddling the Syrian border. ‘‘This is a fight that is bigger than just Iraq,’’ Kerry said Sunday. ‘‘The rise of these terrorists in the region, and particularly in Syria and through the fighting in Syria, is part of what is unleashing this instability in the rest of the region.’’
In Baghdad on Sunday, the deadliest attack took place in the northern Shi’ite Shaab neighborhood, where two car bombs exploded simultaneously near a restaurant and a tea house. Officials say those blasts killed 10 people and wounded 26.
Authorities said a car bomb ripped through the capital’s eastern Shi’ite district of Sadr City, killing five and wounding 10. Another bombing killed three civilians and wounded six in a commercial area in the central Bab al-Muadham neighborhood, officials said. Two other bombings killed two civilians and wounded 13, police said.
Medical officials confirmed the causality figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.