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.
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
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
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
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
"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 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
The overrunning of the cities this
week by al Qaeda's Iraqi branch in
the Sunni heartland of western Anbar provinces is a blow to the Shiite-led
government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik. His government has been struggling
to contain discontent among the Sunni minority over Shiite political domination
that has flared into increased violence for the past year.
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
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
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 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.