RAMADI, Iraq: Tribesmen and police retook two areas of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi from militants Friday, but gunmen still held other parts of the city and controlled another town on Baghdad’s doorstep.
The United Nations and NGOs have said that civilians lack access to essential supplies such as food and fuel as a result of a government blockade, while Human Rights Watch has condemned rights abuses by all sides during the crisis.
Washington, meanwhile, has piled pressure on Baghdad to focus on political reconciliation, in addition to ongoing military operations, in a bid to resolve the standoff, which comes just months before general elections.
Gunmen seized all of Fallujah, just 60 kilometers from Baghdad, and parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi last week, the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Both cities are predominantly Sunni Arab and were former insurgent bastions in Anbar, which shares a border with Syria.
Tribesmen and local police Friday retook the Malaab and Fursan areas of Ramadi from Al-Qaeda-linked militants, tribal military commander Mohammad Khamis Abu Risha told AFP.
“We fought ISIS alongside our sons from the local police forces and returned them to their stations,” Abu Risha said, referring to the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria group.
“They only control 10 percent of Ramadi territory,” he said of ISIS.
An AFP journalist in Ramadi also saw tribesmen and police apparently in control of the two areas.
Abu Risha, the nephew of a powerful tribal sheikh, has backed anti-government protesters and was implicated in the killing of five soldiers near Ramadi last year, but in ISIS shares a common enemy with the government in Baghdad.
Two civilians were killed and four others were wounded in violence in the city, according to a doctor, while eight militants also suffered injuries.
In Fallujah, meanwhile, a prayer leader called for provincial sheikhs to intervene to resolve the crisis in the city, but warned that the government “should not use the army for internal fighting in the cities.”
“Do not make Fallujah a place that attracts killing and blood,” Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Jadua said during Friday prayers.
Violence in predominantly Sunni Arab areas elsewhere in Iraq, meanwhile, left seven people dead, officials said.
A surge in nationwide violence to levels not seen since 2008 and the standoff over Ramadi and Fallujah are among the biggest threats to face Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his eight years in office.
ISIS has been active in Anbar fighting, but so have anti-government tribes.
At the same time, security forces have recruited their own tribal allies in the fighting that has raged in Anbar for more than 10 days.
Last Friday, hundreds of gunmen, some bearing black flags often flown by jihadists, gathered at outdoor weekly prayers in central Fallujah, where one militant announced that “Fallujah is an Islamic state.”
The Iraqi Red Crescent said it had provided humanitarian assistance to more than 8,000 families across Anbar but that upward of 13,000 had fled.
A senior U.S. official has warned the crisis could take several weeks to resolve.
“We’re encouraging a patient and deliberate approach,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think weeks would be prudent.”
An AFP journalist reported this week that traffic police had returned to Fallujah’s streets, some shops had reopened and more cars could be seen, but masked gunmen still controlled the city.
An Iraqi military spokesman has said an assault on Fallujah was on hold for fear of civilian casualties.
Attacking the Sunni-majority city would be a significant test for security forces, who have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of U.S. troops.
It would also be extremely sensitive politically, as it would inflame already high tensions between the Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite-led government.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on Dec. 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.