Mourners carry the coffins of four protesters killed by Iraqi troops in Falluja in January 2013. Photo: AP
BAGHDAD, Iraq - In an effort to retake the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi from al-Qaeda insurgents, Iraqi troops poured into both cities on Friday, chasing them into the outskirts in fighting that killed 71 militants and wounded more than 30 civilians.
The troops were backed by armed members of the tribal “Awakening Council,” led by Sheikh Ahmad Aburish.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, took over most government buildings and police stations last week in reaction to what they said was the treatment of Sunni protesters in Anbar province by Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
Aburish said that the 71 insurgents killed in the operation included the head of the group, Abu Abdulrahman al-Baghdadi. He said more than 30 civilians were hurt.
The balance of power tipped in favor of Iraqi armed forces after tribal fighters joined the government in trying to flush out the radical insurgents from the city.
Despite their fight against the insurgents, tribal chiefs say they refuse to accept the mayor of Fallujah and several high-ranking police and security officials to remain in their posts.
Aburish told the Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper that the tribal chiefs have gathered to discuss the appointment of a new mayor and the transfer of the police officers in question.
For months, residents of the predominantly Sunni Anbar province have been demonstrating on a semi-regular basis against the government of the Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, accusing him of neglecting and marginalizing their regions over offering public services.
The recent fighting and unrest, however, were triggered after the arrest of Sunni MP Ahmad al-Alwani by Iraqi security forces last week and the killing of several members of his family and bodyguards.
On Friday, the spokesman for the Sunni al-Mutahidun bloc told the Al-Hayat newspaper that the release of Alwani would be key to ending the crisis in Anbar.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni and tribal leaders are careful not to antagonize the government by siding with the Islamic insurgents, who claim to be there in their support.
The Awakening Council proved vital in defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups in Iraq in 2007, and since then it has maintained links with the central government.
On Friday, members of the tribal fighting force engaged the insurgents in street fights in Fallujah and Ramadi.
Amid the fighting, Iraq’s state-run Al-Iraqiya TV reported the death of al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.
It was also reported that Maliki had ordered troops to avoid clashing with civilians, and that they were there to back the local police in restoring order in the province.
Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency reported on Friday that the number of Iraqi refugees arriving in neighboring Jordan has spiked since the start of the recent unrest in Anbar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that more than 400 Iraqi families have been arriving in Jordan daily to register as refugees.
The presence of Islamic insurgents has clearly added to the grievances of the local people. Aburishh, the head of the Awakening Council, said that the group has tried to block the main highway that connects Anbar with the rest of the country.
As the fighting raged in Fallujah, the office of Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said the security forces had prevented him and a number of Sunni MPs from attending the Friday sermon in Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa mosque.
In a public statement Nujaifi’s office said it condemned the act, and warned that the capital’s security chief would be summoned to parliament to answer for his action.
The Abu Hanifa mosque is situated in the Sunni Aadhamiya neighborhood, where Iraqi authorities had feared the presence of the Sunni MPs might ignite further unrest.