Iraqis battle militant uprising in 2 Sunni cities
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
and SINAN SALAHEDDIN
the associated press | January 03,2014
An Iraqi police truck used to transport prisoners was set afire by al-Qaida fighters after they freed the prisoners, in front of a government building Wednesday.
BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen on Thursday battled to put down al-Qaida-linked gunmen who, in a coordinated surge, ran rampant in two of the country’s main Sunni cities, overrunning police stations and sweeping through the streets, emboldened by mounting sectarian tensions between minority Sunnis and the Shiite-led government.
Troops hammered the militants with Hellfire rockets recently sent by the United States to help the government’s fight against al-Qaida’s branch in the country, which also operates with increasing strength in Syria’s civil war across the border. The militants’ swift uprising a day early overwhelmed police forces in Ramadi and Fallujah, two cities in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province that were once strongholds for militants battling U.S. troops in the country.
Al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, appeared to be trying to exploit Sunni anger after authorities the past week arrested a senior Sunni politician accused of terrorism and dismantled a months-old sit-in in Ramadi by Sunnis protesting discrimination the Shiite-led government. Those moves added new fuel to sectarian violence that has escalated for the past year in the country since the American withdrawal.
In new violence outside Anbar, a pickup truck laden with explosives blew up on a busy commercial street Thursday evening in the city of Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, destroying several shops.
At least 19 people were killed and 37 wounded, according to the security officials and health officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Al-Qaida militants have been presenting themselves as the Sunnis’ champions against the government. Still, major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose al-Qaida and are fighting against it.
In a concession to Sunnis after the dispersing of the sit-in, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled back military troops from Anbar, allowing local police to take over security duties.
That was a main demand of discontented Sunni politicians who see the army as a tool in the hand of al-Maliki to target his rivals and consolidate power.
But soon after the pullout, the militants launched the simultaneous assaults in Ramadi, Fallujah and at least two other nearby towns.
They seized police stations and military posts, let loose prisoners, and fanned out in the streets, setting up checkpoints. Some were seen cruising in captured security forces’ vehicles, waving black al-Qaida banners.
Al-Maliki quickly ordered military reinforcements back in and called on Sunni tribesmen to help in the fight against the militants.
The heaviest fighting Thursday came in Fallujah, 37miles west of Baghdad, where two security officials said their forces were meeting particularly heavy resistance from al-Qaida fighters.
In the provincial capital of Ramadi, security forces took over several police stations, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. There was no immediate word on casualties.