Al-Qaeda-linked militants were on Thursday in control of more than half of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, a security official and witnesses said.
Violence first erupted on Monday when gunmen clashed with security forces as they tore down the country’s main Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp near Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
The clashes spread to Ramadi and then to Fallujah, where they continued for another two days.
Security forces have since withdrawn from some areas of the two cities in Anbar province, which were both once hubs of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, giving the jihadists free rein.
“Half of Fallujah is in the hands of ISIL (the Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group, and the other half is in the control of” armed tribesmen, an interior ministry official told AFP.
A witness in the city west of Baghdad said that militants had set up checkpoints, each manned by six to seven people, in central and south Fallujah.
“In Ramadi, it is similar — some areas are controlled by ISIL and other areas are controlled by” tribesmen, the interior ministry official said, referring to the provincial capital farther to the west.
An AFP journalist in Ramadi saw dozens of trucks carrying heavily-armed men driving in the city’s east, playing songs praising ISIL.
Lyrics included “The Islamic State remains,” and “Our State is victorious.”
The militants also carried black flags of a type frequently flown by ISIL.
On Wednesday, militants in Ramadi sporadically clashed with security forces and torched four police stations, but the fighting had subsided by Thursday, the AFP journalist said.
The violence had also spread to Fallujah, where police abandoned most of their positions on Wednesday and militants burned some police stations, seized weapons and freed over 100 prisoners, officers said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had on Tuesday announced that soldiers would depart restive cities in Anbar province, but reversed that decision the following day.
However, army forces on Thursday remained outside Ramadi, witnesses said.
Maliki had long wanted the removal of the protest camp, which he termed a “headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda,” but doing so has come at the cost of a sharp decline in the security situation in Anbar.
And 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 from the situation in Anbar, with 44 MPs, most of them Sunnis, 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”.
There has been no announcement so far as to whether or not their resignations have been accepted.
Alwani, a Sunni Arab MP who was a leading supporters 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 — another incident that has raised tensions.
Protests broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq late last year after the arrest of guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab, on terrorism charges. The demonstrations have continued for more than a year.