Fierce clashes in Iraq as Islamic State seizes villages
Baghdad — The Islamic State extremist group launched an offensive Wednesday in Iraq's western Anbar province, capturing three villages near the provincial capital of Ramadi in what was the most significant threat to the city by the Sunni militants to date.
The militants' push comes after the Islamic State was dealt a major blow earlier this month, when Iraqi troops routed the group from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Wednesday's fighting could also further threaten Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. Nearly a decade ago, Ramadi was one of the strongholds of the insurgency in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. It now is mostly held by Iraqi government forces, although militants control some parts of it, mainly on the outskirts.
In a dawn advance, Islamic State extremists seized the villages of Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya, which had also been under government control until now, and residents said they had to flee their homes. Fighting was also taking place on the eastern edges of Ramadi, about a mile from a government building, they added.
In Soufiya, the militants bombed a police station and took over a power plant. The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said airstrikes were trying to back up Iraqi troops. Iraqi security officials could not be reached for comment.
Around noon Wednesday, the militants opened another front with government troops on three other villages to the northeast of Ramadi, the residents added.
An Iraqi intelligence official said the militants were preparing to launch another offensive from the western side of the city, describing the situation as "critical."
The Islamic State was also trying to take control of the main highway that goes through Ramadi to cut off supplies, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim acknowledged that Islamic State militants "gained a foothold in some areas" in Anbar. But he said reinforcements were sent to the province and that airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition were supporting Iraqi forces.
"The situation is under control, and the standoff will be resolved in the coming hours," Ibrahim told the Associated Press. He added, however, that most of the villagers in the area had fled from their homes amid the fighting.
Hundreds of U.S. and coalition forces have been training Iraqi troops at Anbar's Ain Al-Asad air base, about 68 miles west of Ramadi, which came under Islamic State attack in mid-February.