Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 | 5:16 p.m.
BAGHDAD — Two Iraqi cities that were strongholds of Sunni insurgents during the U.S. war in the country are battlegrounds once more after al-Qaida militants largely took them over, fending off government forces that have been besieging them for days.
The overrunning of the cities this week by al-Qaida's Iraqi branch in the Sunni heartland of western Anbar provinces is a blow to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik. His government has been struggling to contain discontent among the Sunni minority over Shiite political domination that has flared into increased violence for the past year.
On Friday, al-Qaida gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah, one of the cities they swept into on Wednesday. A militant commander appeared among worshippers holding Friday prayers in the main city street, proclaiming that his fighters were there to defend Sunnis from the government, one resident said.
"We are your brothers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant," militants circulating through the city in a stolen police car proclaimed through a loudspeaker, using the name of the al-Qaida branch. "We are here to protect you from the government. We call on you to cooperate with us."
Government troops, backed by Sunni tribesmen who oppose al-Qaida, have encircled Fallujah for several days, and have entered parts of the provincial capital Ramadi, also overrun by militants. On Friday, troops bombarded militant positions outside Fallujah with artillery, a military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.
Anbar province, a vast desert area on the borders with Syria and Jordan with an almost entirely Sunni population was the heartland of the Sunni insurgency that rose up against American troops and the Iraqi government after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The insurgency was fueled by anger over the dislodgment of their community from power during Saddam's rule and the rise of Shiites. It was then that al-Qaida established its branch in the country.
Fallujah became notorious among Americans when insurgents in 2004 killed four American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a bridge. It, the provincial capital Ramadi and other cities were repeatedly battlegrounds for the following years, as sectarian bloodshed mounted, with Shiite militias killing Sunni.
Finally, major Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaida, forming militias that fought alongside American troops — bringing an easing of the bloodshed in 2008, before the American withdrawal at the end of 2011.
But 2013 has been the deadliest year since, with a resurgence of violence after al-Maliki's government in April violently broke up a protest by Sunnis against discrimination by Shiite authorities.
Sunni anger further flared after authorities this past week arrested a senior Sunni politician and dismantled a months-old sit-in in Ramadi over the past week.
As a concession, al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled the military out of Anbar cities to give security duties to local police, a top demand of Sunnis who see the army as a tool of al-Maliki's rule. But al-Qaida militants promptly erupted in Fallujah, Ramadi and several nearby towns, overrunning police station, driving out security forces and freeing prisoners.
Since then, militants have dug in in the cities, setting up checkpoints in streets and waving black al-Qaida banners. Al-Maliki called in military reinforcements and sought the support of Sunni tribal fighters, who oppose al-Qaida though they still mistrust the government.
Government official Dhari al-Rishawi told The Associated Press that clashes were still underway on Friday, saying the militants remain in control of Fallujah and some parts of Ramadi. On Thursday, government warplanes fired Hellfire missiles — recently supplied by the United States — at some militant positions.
So far, casualties from the fighting since Wednesday are not known. On Friday, two policemen were killed and six other wounded when their patrol was attacked by gunmen in speeding cars outside Fallujah, a police officer and a medical officials said on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.