January 2

Al-Qaida militants try to take over 2 Iraqi cities

Radical Sunni militants freed prisoners, torched police stations and seized mosques on in Falluja and Ramadi in two of the country’s most important cities.

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen battled on Thursday 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.

click image to enlarge

Iraqi federal policemen search a car at a checkpoint in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. The Iraqi government has tightened its security measures after security forces have arrested, Wathiq al-Batat, a controversial Shiite cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia called Mukhtar Army.

AP Photo

click image to enlarge

A police truck used to transport prisoners was set afire by al-Qaida fighters after they freed the prisoners, in front of the main provincial government building Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. On Wednesday, al-Qaida gunmen fanned out in the streets of towns in the volatile western province of Anbar amid Sunni anger over the arrest of a prominent Sunni lawmaker and the dismantlement of a year-long sit-in the provincial capital Ramadi in recent days.

AP Photo

Troops hammered the militants with Hellfire rockets recently sent by the United States to help the government’s fight against al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, which also operates with increasing strength in Syria’s civil war across the border. The militants’ swift uprising a day earlier 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.

The al-Qaida branch, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, appeared to be trying to exploit Sunni anger after authorities over 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 government. Those moves added new fuel to sectarian violence that has escalated 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 (70 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, destroying several shops. At least 19 people were killed and 37 were 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, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday pulled 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 al-Maliki uses to target his rivals and consolidate power.

But soon after the pull-out, the militants launched the simultaneous assaults in Ramadi, Fallujah and at least two other nearby towns. They seized police stations and military posts, freed 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, 60 kilometers (40 miles) 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 back 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. Footage released by the military showed forces firing Hellfire missiles at militant positions.

In another apparent move to maintain Sunni support, security forces arrested a controversial Shiite cleric who leads an Iranian-backed militia. Sunnis have long accused the government of targeting only Sunni militant groups while blessing Shiite ones.

Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim told The Associated Press that the cleric, Wathiq al-Batat, was arrested in Baghdad on Wednesday. He gave no further details.

Al-Batat has been wanted by the government since last year. He formed the so-called Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites from attacks by Sunni extremists, and claims to have more than 1 million members, a number that has not been independently verified. He took responsibility in November for firing six mortar shells at a region of Saudi Arabia bordering Iraq and Kuwait, describing it as retaliation for Saudi religious decrees that allegedly insult Shiites and encourage killing them. He also claimed responsibility for attacks on a camp hosting an Iranian opposition group.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at KJonline.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)