BAGHDAD — Iraqi airstrikes pounded a town near Fallujah that had been seized by Al Qaeda-linked militants, and commandos swept in Wednesday to clear the area, military officials said. It was a rare victory for government forces that have been struggling for nearly three weeks to regain control of the mainly Sunni area west of Baghdad.
North of the capital, a bomb hit a funeral of an anti-Al Qaeda Sunni militiaman, the deadliest in a series of attacks that killed at least 50 nationwide.
Violence has risen sharply as extremist Islamist militants try to exploit growing anger among the Sunni minority over what they perceive as mistreatment and random arrests by the Shi’ite-led government.
Members of the Al Qaeda-linked group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emboldened by successes in the civil war raging next door in Syria — made a push to seize parts of the mainly Sunni Anbar province as violence erupted after the government arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges on Dec. 28, then dismantled an antigovernment Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has held off ordering an all-out offensive against the extremists because of fears that civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists. The area was one of the bloodiest battlefields for US forces during the war and Al Qaeda’s resurgence poses a challenge to the government and its forces two years after the Americans withdrew.
Wednesday’s counterattack came a day after Al Qaeda militants blew up an explosives-laden fuel tanker at an army checkpoint, killing three soldiers on a bridge near Saqlawiya, just north of Fallujah.
Heavily armed gunmen then stormed into the town and surrounded the main police station, forcing all the policemen to relinquish their weapons and leave. Security forces then launched airstrikes against the gunmen, who fled, allowing Iraqi troops to enter the town later Wednesday.
It was a welcome success for Iraq’s government, which has been criticized for failing to protect its people. Militants retain control of large swaths in Ramadi and Fallujah.
The unrest in Anbar and other Sunni-dominated provinces has uprooted thousands of people from their homes.
International aid agencies appealed to the warring parties on Wednesday to allow humanitarian aid to reach the displaced families.
More than 11,000 families have fled their houses in Fallujah and Ramadi to nearby areas or outside Anbar province, according to the UN. Some families ended up in abandoned buildings, schools, or half-built houses while others ended up with relatives.
The World Health Organization said the few health facilities in the province were no longer able to provide even lifesaving interventions and residents in Ramadi and Fallujah face acute health needs due to the conflict. The organization said it has dispatched 2 tons of medicine and supplies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has delivered food and essential supplies over the past few days to nearly 12,000 displaced people in Anbar and several other mainly Sunni areas.
Rashid Hassan, a Red Cross delegate who participated in a distribution of aid in the northern province of Tikrit, said that in one instance 65 people, including many children, were crammed into one four-room house. ‘‘People are struggling hard to cope with the cold as blankets, mattresses, and food are lacking,” he said.
Tensions are high elsewhere, raising fears that Iraq is being pushed back toward the sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands of people.
In Baghdad, bombings killed at least 28 people.
A roadside bomb also hit a military convoy near Mosul, killing six soldiers.