RAMADI, Iraq: Iraqi security forces and tribesmen battled Al-Qaeda-linked militants Thursday who seized parts of two Sunni-majority cities after days of violence that erupted when security forces demolished a year-old Sunni protest camp.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took half of Fallujah and areas of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi farther west, and security forces and tribesmen began to fight back.
"We entered Fallujah with heavy clashes," special forces commander Major General Fadhel al-Barwari said in a statement.
And in eastern Ramadi, fighting erupted between tribesman and police on one side and militants on the other, police said.
The fighting in Ramadi later wound down, with militants still in control of some areas, while the situation in Fallujah was not immediately clear.
Clashes began in the Ramadi area on Monday as security forces tore down the country's main Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp near the city west of Baghdad, and continued for two days.
The violence also spread to nearby Fallujah. Security forces later withdrew from some areas of both cities, which were once hubs of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, giving the jihadists free rein.
An interior ministry official said earlier on Thursday that ISIL militants controlled half of Fallujah and some areas of Ramadi, while tribesmen held other parts of the two cities.
A witness in Fallujah said militants had set up checkpoints, each manned by six to seven people, in the centre and south of the city.
And an AFP journalist in Ramadi saw dozens of trucks carrying heavily armed men in the east of the city, playing songs praising ISIL.
Lyrics included "The Islamic State remains" and "Our State is victorious," while militants also carried black flags of a type frequently flown by ISIL.
The unrest has led to hardship in Ramadi.
"We are not leaving our homes because of what is happening," said resident Abdel Nasser.
"There is no food. Even if you manage to go to the market, you find nothing."
On Wednesday, militants and security forces in Ramadi clashed sporadically, with four police stations torched, the AFP journalist said.
And in Fallujah, police abandoned most of their positions, with militants burning police stations, seizing weapons and freeing more than 100 prisoners, officers said.
On Thursday, the interior ministry demanded that the deserters return.
"The interior ministry calls for all officers and policemen working in Anbar province who have left their duties" to return "immediately and do their patriotic duty in confronting the terrorist attack," a statement said.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had said soldiers would leave restive cities in Anbar, but reversed that decision a day later and said he would send in reinforcements.
However, security officials said Thursday regular forces remained outside Ramadi and Fallujah.
But a witness in Fallujah said tanks had deployed near the city's eastern entrance, which may be part of the promised reinforcements.
Maliki had long sought the removal of the protest camp, calling it a "headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda," but doing so resulted in a sharp decline in the security situation.
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. with 44 MPs, most of them Sunni, announcing on Monday that they had submitted their resignations. They also called for "the withdrawal of the army from the cities and the release of MP Ahmed al-Alwani."
Alwani, a Sunni Arab and leading supporter of the protest camp, was arrested in a Saturday raid on his Ramadi home in which his brother, five guards and a security forces member died.
Protests first broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas in late 2012, and have continued for more than a year.
Attacks also hit Baghdad, the town of Baladruz northeast of the capital and the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 21 people.