RAMADI, Iraq // Iraqi security forces and tribesmen on Thursday battled against militants linked to Al Qaeda who seized parts of two Sunni-majority cities after days of violence that erupted after a year-old protest camp was removed.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of half of the city of Fallujah and areas of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi farther west, but security forces and armed tribesmen have begun to fight back.
“We entered Fallujah with heavy clashes,” said a special forces commander, Major General Fadhel Al Barwari.
And in east Ramadi, fighting erupted between Iraqi tribesman and police on one side and militants on the other, two police officers said.
Clashes began in the Ramadi area on Monday as security forces tore down the country’s main Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp near the city west of Baghdad, and continued for two days.
The violence also spread to nearby Fallujah, and security forces later withdrew from some areas of both cities in Anbar province, which were once hubs of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, giving the militants free rein.
An interior ministry official said on Thursday that the militants controlled half of Fallujah and some areas of Ramadi, while tribesmen held other parts of the two cities.
A witness in Fallujah said militants had set up checkpoints, each manned by six to seven people, in the centre and south of the city.
A journalist in Ramadi saw dozens of lorries carrying heavily armed men in the east of the city, playing songs praising the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Lyrics included “The Islamic State remains” and “Our State is victorious”, while militants also carried black flags of a type frequently flown by the militant group.
The unrest has led to hardship in Ramadi.
“We are not leaving our homes because of what is happening,” said one resident, Abdel Nasser.
“There is no food. Even if you manage to go to the market, you find nothing.”
On Wednesday, militants and security forces in Ramadi clashed sporadically, with four police stations torched.
And in Fallujah, police abandoned most of their positions on Wednesday and militants burnt police stations, seized weapons and freed more than 100 prisoners, officers said.
The interior ministry on Thursday demanded that the deserters return.
“The interior ministry calls for all officers and policemen working in Anbar province who have left their duties” to return “immediately and do their patriotic duty in confronting the terrorist attack,” it said in an online statement.
The prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, said on Tuesday that soldiers would leave restive cities in Anbar, but reversed that decision a day later and said he would send reinforcements instead.
However, security officials said on Thursday that regular forces remained outside Ramadi and Fallujah.
But a witness in Fallujah said tanks had deployed near the city’s eastern entrance, which may be part of the reinforcements to which Mr Maliki referred.
Mr Maliki had long sought the removal of the protest camp, calling it a “headquarters for the leadership of Al Qaeda”, but doing so resulted in a sharp decline in the security situation.
While the camp’s closure has removed a physical sign of deep-seated grievances among Sunni Arabs, their complaints of being marginalised by the Shiite-led authorities and unfairly targeted by security forces remain unaddressed.
There has also been political fallout with 44 MPs, most of them Sunni, announcing on Monday that they had submitted their resignations, and calling for “the withdrawal of the army from the cities and the release of MP Ahmed Al Alwani”.
Mr Alwani, a Sunni Arab MP and leading supporter of the protest camp, was arrested in a raid on his Ramadi home on Saturday in which his brother, five guards and a security forces member died.
There has been no word on whether the resignations have been accepted.
Protests first broke out in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq in late 2012, and have continued for more than a year.
* Agence France-Presse