BAGHDAD – It’s been two years since the last American combat soldier left Iraq, and now the Iraqi government is in danger of losing some of the hardest-won victories of the Iraq war.
Two Iraqi cities that were strongholds of Sunni insurgents during the U.S. war in the country are battlegrounds once more after al Qaeda militants largely took them over, fending off government forces that have been besieging them for days.
On Friday, al Qaeda gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah, one of the cities they swept into on Wednesday.
Fighters dressed in black have burned police stations and raised the al Qaeda flag over government buildings. U.S. officials stop short of declaring that either city has fallen to the insurgents, calling it “a fluid situation,” but one which at the moment “looks bad.”
CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin reports the Iraqi government likely has the power to retake these cities.
“They have the fire power because, among other things, they have America-made tanks. The danger is that retaking these cities will set off an all-out war between the Shiites and the Sunnis," Martin notes.
Martin reports U.S. officials blame the resurgence of al Qaeda in part on the incompetence of the Maliki government and in part on the spillover effect from the civil war in Syria, which has become a rallying cry for radical Islamists.
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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda, 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-Qaeda established its branch in the country.
The fighting pits the Shiite government of Prime Minister
Maliki against the Sunni insurgents and threatens to reignite the kind of
sectarian warfare that almost destroyed Iraq in the years following the
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 Qaeda, 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 Qaeda 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 -Qaeda banners. Al-Maliki called in military reinforcements and sought the support of Sunni tribal fighters, who oppose al Qaeda 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.