Abduction of soldiers near Fallujah deals strategic blow to Iraq army
Militants appeared to have captured at least five Iraqi soldiers near Fallujah Sunday, according to witnesses and online videos, as 13 people were killed elsewhere amid a nationwide surge in unrest.
The latest deaths push to more than 850 the number of people killed this month in Iraq, where authorities are grappling with a deadly standoff in Anbar province and a surge in nationwide bloodshed.
Diplomats and foreign leaders have urged the Shiite-led government to pursue political reconciliation with disaffected minority Sunnis to undercut support for militants, but with elections looming in April, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line.
On Sunday, witnesses said between five and 22 soldiers, were captured by anti-government fighters who also seized several military vehicles.
The alleged operations were shown in videos posted on the YouTube, but their authenticity could not be immediately verified
According to witnesses, anti-government fighters attacked a small military outpost on the outskirts of Fallujah in the morning, forcing some soldiers to retreat while others gave themselves up.
One video shows five men dressed in Iraqi army uniforms sitting in the back of a pick-up truck as onlookers crowd around them.
The men hoist a black flag akin to those often flown by jihadists and shout slogans in support of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Another video shows militants driving two Iraqi army Humvees as Fallujah residents look on.
Witnesses said as many as six Humvees were seized, and that three were set ablaze.
The latest unrest marks another setback for Iraqi forces who have struggled to wrest back control of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi that have been out of government control for weeks.
Security forces have also been locked in deadly battles in Ramadi, where militants hold several neighbourhoods, and have carried out operations in rural areas between the two cities.
ISIL has been involved in the fighting, and witnesses and tribal leaders in Fallujah say the group has tightened its grip on the city in recent days, but other militant groups and anti-government fighters have also been involved in battles with security forces.
Also in Fallujah on Sunday, a mother and her three children were killed in a blast at their home in the south of the city in the early hours of the morning, Dr. Ahmed Shami said.
It was unclear if heavy artillery or smaller rockets were responsible for the blast.
For weeks, Fallujah and parts of Ramadi have been in the hands of anti-government fighters, some of them from ISIL.
It is 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 protracted standoff has forced more than 140,000 people from their homes according to the UN refugee agency, which has described it as the worst displacement in Iraq since the 2006-08 sectarian conflict.
Elsewhere in Iraq, nine people were killed in gun and bomb attacks, officials said.
Three apparently coordinated car bombs struck Kirkuk, a disputed ethnically-mixed city in north Iraq, killing four people. Attacks in and around Baghdad left four more dead, including a former army general.
In the main northern city of Mosul, a tribal leader was gunned down in his car.
The latest bloodshed pushed the overall death toll for the month above 850 -- more than three times the toll for January 2013, according to a tally.