BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki paid a visit on Saturday to the battleground city of Ramadi, where security forces and allied tribesmen have for weeks fought to retake militant-held areas.
His inspection tour came as militants killed 22 soldiers and police over two days and kept their grip on part of the northern town of Sulaiman Bek in a new front in the persistent rebellion against his Shiite-led government in Sunni Arab areas.
The visit is Maliki's first announced trip to Anbar province since jihadist militants and anti-government tribesmen seized control of parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah to its east at the start of the year, in a major setback for his government.
Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi said the premier met with provincial officials and leaders of powerful local tribes.
"We came to confirm our support to our people and our tribes in Anbar," Mussawi quoted Maliki as saying in a speech.
Another official in Maliki's office said the premier would be briefed on the progress of military operations.
The takeovers in Anbar are the first time that anti-government forces have exercised such open control in major cities since the bloody insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
The prospects of a quick resolution to the crisis seem slim, with Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani saying the strategy for retaking Fallujah is to surround it and wait for Sunni Arab gunmen to run short of weapons and equipment.
Authorities also face a small-scale version of the Anbar crisis in northern Iraq, where militants took control of part of the town of Sulaiman Bek and nearby areas in Salaheddin province on Thursday.
Local official Talib al-Bayati told AFP security forces had succeeded in retaking militant-held areas on Friday, but then withdrew for unknown reasons.
On Saturday, gunmen were in control of the town's Al-Askari neighbourhood, he said.
Sulaiman Bek has been hit by numerous attacks over the past year, and was briefly seized by militants in late April.
In July, 150 militants struck with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, and executed 14 Shiite truck drivers on a nearby highway.
Twenty-two Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed in targeted attacks and clashes over the past two days, officials and doctors said.
In the city of Tikrit, north of the capital, gunmen lured a police colonel out of his house, shot him dead and fled the area on Friday, after gunmen killed four police guarding a nearby highway earlier in the day.
And militants shot dead four soldiers and wounded three who were driving in a civilian vehicle on the highway.
In Sulaiman Bek, a police captain was stopped by militants and shot dead on his way to pick up relatives in the town and evacuate them to safety.
In the Jurf al-Sakhr area south of Baghdad, five soldiers died in clashes with militants.
In the northern oil refinery town of Baiji, a bomb killed five police guarding a pipeline.
Farther north, in the Sharqat area, gunmen killed a policeman and a soldier in separate attacks on Saturday.
The often poorly trained and disciplined security forces are the target of near-daily attacks by militants.
Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings.
Foreign leaders have urged the Shiite-led government to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni Arab minority to undercut support for militants.
But Maliki has taken a hard line ahead of a general election scheduled for April.