Radical Sunni militants aligned with al-Qaeda Thursday threatened to seize control of Falluja 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 American-led war in Iraq and remain hotbeds of Sunni extremism.
The fighting in Ramadi and Falluja had implications that extended beyond Anbars borders,as the Sunni militants fought beneath the same banner as the most hardline jihadists in Syria the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,or ISIS.
It was unclear,amid the unfolding chaos,to determine an exact number of casualties,but officials in hospitals in Anbar reported at least 35 were killed Thursday and more than 70 others were wounded.
The fighting began several days ago after Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,a Shia,ordered security forces to dismantle protest encampments in Falluja and Ramadi.
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.
In a telephone interview Thursday,one tribal fighter loyal to the government,Abu Omar,described heavy clashes across Falluja,and said the government had started shelling militant hide-outs.
We told all the families to leave their houses, he said. Many families fled from the city,and others are still unable to because of the heavy clashes. We have reports that the hospital in Falluja is full of dead and wounded people.
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 dont want to be like Syria, said Sheikh Omar Al-Asabi,who led a group of fighting men in an area east of Falluja.