Islamic State strikes back in Anbar province
By Erin Cunningham and Mustafa Salim
April 10, 2015
BAGHDAD -- Islamic State militants launched a devastating assault on Iraqi government forces in the capital of Anbar province Friday, wounding two senior security officers, battling troops in the city center and executing more than a dozen civilians for ties to the government.
Islamic State fighters battled Iraqi troops in new areas of the provincial capital Ramadi -- just 75 miles west of Baghdad -- in an offensive that brought fresh urgency to the government's plans to take on the militants in their stronghold in western Iraq.
In a visit to Habbaniyah air base in Anbar on Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had vowed to defeat Islamic State militants in the province. Pro-government forces claimed victory over the jihadists in the northern city of Tikrit last month. It marked a serious blow to the group, which seeks to capture and hold territory to build its version of an Islamic caliphate.
But in Ramadi, the battle raged on at least two fronts Friday -- and the government was losing ground, officials said. The militants already control most of the province. 
Jihadist sleeper cells in the Albu Faraj district north of the city attacked Iraqi police and army units Thursday night, the officials said.
Then, on Friday, a suicide bomber ambushed a convoy of reinforcements that included the Anbar police chief and the head of the military's provincial operations command. Both officials were wounded and more than 10 security personnel were killed.
In the mayhem, the Islamic State managed to capture more than half of Albu Faraj, which is less than two miles from the Anbar Operations Command headquarters. And as hundreds of civilians fled to central Ramadi -- lugging blankets and mattresses on foot, according to videos posted on social media sites -- the militants executed 15 relatives of local police officers, including women and children, women said.
"Daesh came to our area and people joined them immediately!" a young woman from Albu Faraj told Iraqi television channel al-Sharqiya after she arrived in central Ramadi. Daesh is the Arabic name for the Islamic State.
"They attacked from inside and outside the area, and now they control more than half of Albu Faraj," said Suleiman Kubaysi, a spokesman for the Anbar provincial council. After the car bomb attack, the government in Anbar "demanded urgent action" from Baghdad, including coalition airstrikes, he said.
The government losses in Albu Faraj came as a battle between Iraqi troops and militants raged in the Sijariya district nearby. On Wednesday, Iraqi forces had announced an offensive to recapture the area in eastern Ramadi. But they faced stiff resistance from the militants and soon ran out of ammunition, a Ramadi-based pro-government tribal fighter said.
The government "took a couple of houses, but then Daesh fought back and captured all of it," said Omar Shehan al-Awani, a sheik from the Awani tribe in Ramadi. As he spoke by telephone from the city center Friday night, explosions could be heard in the background.
"The fighting is so close to me, and we can't hold our ground much longer," Awani said. "We need a big operation as soon as possible. We need forces and ammunition."
Because Anbar is a majority Sunni province, long at odds with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, authorities have hesitated to deploy the Shiite paramilitary forces that have helped clear out Islamic State fighters elsewhere in the country. Shiite militias have been accused of carrying out sectarian revenge attacks against local Sunnis following victories against the Islamic State.
"The people of Anbar don't need the support of the public mobilization forces," an association of Sunni Anbar clerics said in a statement Friday. The public mobilization forces -- a volunteer army recruited to supplement Iraq's military -- are dominated by the Shiite militias.
"The tribes are capable of liberating all of Anbar if they are armed and supported" by the government, the statement said.
On Friday, the Anbar provincial council said three regiments of federal police were deployed to Ramadi to recapture Albu Faraj.
"We can say that the Islamic State is weak" after losing Tikrit, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi researcher and expert on the group. But after the fierce fighting in Anbar, he said, "we cannot say that it has collapsed."