BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces pressed an assault on Al-Qaeda-linked fighters holding parts of a city west of Baghdad Tuesday as the UN warned of an "exponential rise" in displaced or stranded families.
Violence elsewhere in the country, meanwhile, left five people dead, bringing to nearly 700 the number of people killed in nationwide unrest this month, fuelling fears Iraq is slipping back into the all-out conflict that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007.
Diplomats have urged Baghdad to foster political reconciliation to undercut support for militants, but with elections looming in April, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and others have taken a hard line and focused on wide-ranging security operations.
An Al-Qaeda-linked group has called for its fighters to "creep towards Baghdad", and a top Iraqi official has said anti-government fighters who have claimed control of parts of one city and all of another have enough firepower to "occupy" the capital.
Iraqi security personnel, including soldiers, policemen and SWAT forces working with pro-government tribal fighters continued to assault key neighbourhoods of Ramadi on Tuesday in a bid to wrest back control from gunmen who have held the areas for more than three weeks.
They suffered casualties, however, with a dozen security personnel and armed tribesmen wounded by snipers during clashes in the central Ramadi neighbourhoods of Malaab and Dhubat, a police major and Doctor Mohammed Fanoos from the city's hospital said.
Fallujah, a former insurgent bastion a short drive from Baghdad, was still in the control of the Al-Qaeda gunmen, however, with residents of the city telling AFP on Monday that they were tightening their grip at the expense of tribal sheikhs.
Both Ramadi and Fallujah lie in Anbar province, a mostly-Sunni desert province west of Baghdad along the border with Syria.
The United Nations warned on Tuesday of "an exponential increase in the number of displaced and stranded families," with more than 22,000 families having registered as internally displaced.
The UN said the actual figure was likely to be higher, as not all those who fled had registered. It said of those who had left, most had found refuge elsewhere in Anbar, but some had gone as far afield as the northern Kurdish region.
Violence in the restive cities of Mosul and Baquba, both north of Baghdad, meanwhile left five people dead, security and medical officials said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and other diplomats have called for the Shiite-led authorities to address long-standing grievances in the disaffected Sunni minority, and officials have made some concessions.
But with elections due on April 30, Iraq's leaders have shown little appetite for compromise and have instead trumpeted security operations against militants.
Human Rights Watch said, however, in its annual report released on Tuesday that alleged abuses by the Iraqi security forces "compound violence".
"Iraqis today are caught between state-sponsored violence and terrorist attacks," said Joe Story, the New York-based group's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The latest violence brought to nearly 700 the number of people killed so far this month, according to an AFP tally.