Iraqi government launches offensive to take back Ramadi
RAMADI, IRAQ // Iraqi forces launched a major assault on Sunday on a Sunni-dominated 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 special forces, sought to wrest back neighbourhoods 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 programme for Iraqi forces grappling with the country’s worst bloodshed since 2008 and the standoff in Anbar which have combined to leave more than 650 people dead this month.
Diplomats, including the 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, special forces and tribal fighters moved into five neighbourhoods of Ramadi on Sunday, with helicopters providing them cover and firing on targets in the sprawling Malaab district that has been at the centre 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,” the defence ministry spokesman, Staff Lt Gen Mohammed Al Askari said, using terms frequently used by the security forces to describe militants.
All of the neighbourhoods targeted lie in the south or centre 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 claimed 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 Sunni Arab protest camp.
It spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, on Sunday blamed “diabolical” and “treacherous” Arab countries for supporting the unrest, and insisted he was “confident that the Iraqi people will defeat terrorism”.
“The world has united with us,” he said in a speech in the southern city of Nasiriyah. “The [UN] Security Council, the European Union, and most Arab countries, except some diabolical treacherous countries.”
Amman meanwhile said it would host US training for Iraqi forces, after an American defence official said Washington was waiting for an agreement with Jordan or another country to go ahead with the programme.
Mr Maliki told The Washington Post in an interview published on Thursday that Baghdad specifically needed US “counter-terrorism” training.
The US defence 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 the Iraqi government.
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.
Among the dead were six pro-government Sunni militiamen gunned down in an early morning attack on their checkpoint near the city of Baquba. Attacks in the predominantly Sunni cities of Mosul and Tikrit left three others dead.
* Agence France-Presse
Updated: January 19, 2014 04:00 AM