BAGHDAD: Violence in Anbar province held by anti-government fighters killed three people as the UN warned yesterday of Iraq’s worst displacement since its brutal 2006-08 sectarian conflict.
More than 140,000 people have fled their homes in the mostly-desert province since unrest erupted in late December, as security forces and their tribal allies have been locked in a deadly stand-off with militants, including those affiliated with the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Foreign leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have urged Iraq to pursue measures to undercut support for militants, but with an election looming in April, Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has taken a hard line.
Security forces have mounted a massive operation to retake parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi held by anti-government fighters, and for days have engaged in clashes.
Shelling which began early yesterday of the Ramadi neighbourhoods of Malaab and Albu Faraj, both out of the government’s control, killed two people and wounded 30, security and medical officials said.
Government forces and militants also engaged in firefights in Ramadi on Thursday evening, but no casualties were reported.
But one person was killed and seven were wounded in heavy shelling late on Thursday in Fallujah, a former insurgent bastion also west of Baghdad entirely held by militants.
Fallujah residents blamed the army for the shelling, but defence officials said the military was not responsible. Parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah have for weeks been in the hands of anti-government fighters, including ISIL members.
It marks the first time militants have exercised such open control in Iraqi cities since the peak of the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
The government says it is fighting Al Qaeda while Fallujah residents and tribal sheikhs have said ISIL has tightened its grip on the city. But other militant groups and anti-government tribes have also been involved in battling government forces in Anbar.
More than 140,000 had fled their homes since the conflict began, including more than 65,000 in the past week, UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Peter Kessler said, adding the continued unrest had sparked Iraq’s worst displacement. AFP