Iraqi forces launched a major assault Sunday on a city partially in the control of anti-government fighters in a bid to end a weeks-long crisis ahead of elections.
The operation, which involved police, pro-government militiamen and SWAT forces, sought to wrest back key neighborhoods of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and one of two cities where the authorities lost vast swathes of territory about three weeks ago.
It came as Jordan said it would host a US training program for Iraqi forces grappling with the country’s worst bloodshed since 2008 and the ongoing deadly standoff in Anbar which have combined to leave more than 650 people dead so far this month.
Diplomats including UN chief Ban Ki-moon have urged Baghdad to pursue political reconciliation to undercut support for militancy, but with an election looming in April, Iraqi political leaders have not wanted to be seen to capitulate and have focused on wide-ranging security operations.
Iraqi troops, policemen, SWAT forces and tribal fighters moved into five neighborhoods of Ramadi on Sunday, with helicopters providing them cover and firing on targets in the sprawling Malaab district that has been at the center of fighting between anti-government fighters and security forces and their tribal allies.
“The Iraqi army launched a large operation with helicopter cover against Daash, al-Qaeda and terrorists in Ramadi,” defense ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari said, according to state television, employing terms frequently used by the Iraqi security forces to describe militants.
A police lieutenant colonel and an AFP journalist in Ramadi both confirmed the operation had begun.
All of the neighborhoods targeted lie in the south or center of the city.
The operation will seek to take back momentum from anti-government fighters, who have expanded their hold on Ramadi in the past week after police and allied tribesmen trumpeted gains there earlier this month.
A large section of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, both former insurgent bastions close to Baghdad, fell from government control late last month.
It was the first time anti-government fighters have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
Fighting originally erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old protest camp.
It spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
Amman on Sunday said it would host US training for Iraqi forces, after an American defense official said Washington was waiting for an agreement with Jordan or another country to go ahead with the program.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Washington Post in an interview published on Thursday that Baghdad specifically needed US “counter-terrorism” training.
The US defense official said Washington was also preparing to ship “several thousand” M-16 and M-4 assault rifles as well as ammunition to Iraq, after having already provided missiles to Maliki’s government.
And on Saturday the White House said that Vice President Joe Biden had spoken to Maliki to discuss Washington’s support for Iraq’s fight against jihadis.
“The two leaders agreed on the importance of the Iraqi government’s continued outreach to local and tribal leaders in Anbar province,” the White House said.
Violence also struck elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, with nine people killed in restive cities north of Baghdad, a day after a wave of bombings in the capital killed 25.
The violence, which included at least a half-dozen car bombs and left more than 70 people wounded, struck all over the capital, including against an upscale shopping center, and sparked a prison break at a juvenile detention center.
An interior ministry official said 23 detainees escaped in the chaotic aftermath of the attack, but Iraqiya state TV said security forces prevented the attempted jailbreak.
More than 650 people have been killed already this month, according to an AFP tally, part of a protracted surge in unrest nationwide.
The United Nations says nearly 9,000 people died violently in Iraq last year, all but 1,050 of them civilians.
Diplomats and analysts say that the Shia-led authorities must do more to address underlying grievances in the disaffected Sunni minority in order to take away support for militants carrying out attacks.
But Maliki and other officials insist the security operations are making headway.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)