RAMADI, Iraq: A suicide bombing and shelling in Iraq's Anbar province killed six people as security forces on Friday pressed an assault against militants for territory the government lost weeks ago.
The unrest in Anbar coupled with violence elsewhere in Iraq, which has already killed more than 600 people this month, has fuelled fears the country is slipping back into all-out sectarian war with little appetite for compromise among political leaders ahead of a general election scheduled for April.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and other diplomats have urged Baghdad to pursue political reconciliation, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled out dialogue with militants and the authorities have instead trumpeted operations by the police and army.
On Friday, thousands of security personnel from elite forces pressed an assault on Albubali, a rural area where security officials say a large number of anti-government fighters are holed up.
The area, comprised of farmland and villages, lies between Ramadi and Fallujah, the two cities in the western desert province of Anbar at the centre of the crisis.
Security forces are also seeking to recover the bodies of eight of their own who have been killed in militant attacks.
The air support which initially accompanied the operation has been withdrawn for fear that the militants have anti-aircraft weapons, two policemen told AFP.
They said that security forces, backed by tanks, had so far recovered the bodies of six gunmen killed in the offensive, but progress was limited by snipers.
A large swathe of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, both former insurgent bastions, fell out of government control late last month, marking the first time anti-government fighters have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been involved in the fighting alongside anti-government tribal fighters, while Baghdad has recruited its own allies among the province's powerful tribes.
The regular army has largely focused its efforts on militant bases outside the two cities, while loyalist militiamen and police have taken part in the fight to retake Ramadi.
But on Thursday, a suicide bomber targeted a gathering of pro-government Sahwa militiamen, killing three of them, a police officer and a doctor said.
The Sahwa, Sunni Arab tribesmen who made common cause with US forces in the battle against Al-Qaeda from late 2006 turning the tide against their co-religionists, are regarded as traitors by Sunni militants and often targeted in attacks.
Two other Sahwa fighters were killed north of Baghdad in separate attacks on Thursday.
Shelling in Fallujah, that began late Thursday and continued into the early hours of Friday, killed another three people, Doctor Ahmed Shami of the city's hospital said.
Residents of Fallujah have accused the army of carrying out the artillery bombardment from its positions on the city's eastern edge but defence officials have insisted they are not responsible.
Fighting originally erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.
It spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
Diplomats have called on the Shiite-led authorities to address longstanding grievances within the Sunni minority to undercut support for militants.
But with a parliamentary election due on April 30, Maliki has taken a hard line and ruled out dialogue, a high-risk gamble that could affect more than just his bid for re-election.
"If Maliki succeeds, and the security situation in Anbar improves, he will have a better chance at winning the election," said Ihsan al-Shammari, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.
"But if he fails? That will not only affect Maliki's political future. It will threaten the political process."