Al-Qaeda-linked militants held control of much of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and other nearby towns, fighting off efforts by troops with air support to dislodge them, according to a witness.
The al-Qaeda fighters have seized military equipment provided by the U.S. Marines to Fallujah police, whose headquarters have been taken over, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city in Iraq's western Anbar province, said in a phone interview late yesterday. There's no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is occurring on a highway that links the city to Baghdad, he said.
The U.S. is following the events in Iraq closely and is concerned by efforts of the "terrorist Al Qaida/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to assert its authority in Syria as well as Iraq," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said today in a statement.
"We would note that a number of tribal leaders in Iraq have declared an open revolt against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," Harf said. "We are working with the Iraqi government to support those tribes in every possible way."
Iraq's air force carried out two air strikes today on Fallujah and the nearby city of Ramadi that killed 55 al-Qaeda fighters, General Ali Ghaidan, chief of the country's land forces told al-Sumaria News.
Anti-government fighters captured the al-Mazraa military camp near Fallujah after heavy fighting, Al Jazeera television said.
Halima Ahmed, a health official in the province, said by phone yesterday that the death toll in Fallujah during recent days of fighting had reached 36, mostly civilians killed by army shelling.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge militants from Fallujah and Ramadi, a focus of the 2007 "surge" of U.S. forces. The current fighting is part of an escalation of violence in Iraq, where 2013 saw the most civilian casualties for five years amid the kind of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has also engulfed Syria and Lebanon.
The war to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam who's backed by Iran, is being fought by largely Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest Sunni power.
The Sunni gunmen in Anbar, which neighbors Syria, are linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also fighting Assad. The U.S. has stepped up arms supplies to help Maliki's Shiite-led government suppress the group, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al- Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
"If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that's a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they'd have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about," said Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador from 2007 to 2009. "It's exactly what they had in Afghanistan before" the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S.
There is little support in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after President George W. Bush's administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending direct military action by the U.S. in Iraq as one of his main accomplishments.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, with almost 18,000 wounded, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
The Pentagon is "keeping an eye on the situation," a spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He said the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraqi authorities in accordance with the security framework agreement between the countries, without giving details.
So far, the violence hasn't affected Iraq's major oil fields, the country's main source of revenue. Output rose by 100,000 barrels a day last month to 3.2 million barrels, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey. The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
Along with the fighting in Anbar province and the violence elsewhere in Iraq, Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of Iraq's parliament resigning because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests.