Iraq struggles to eject militants: Short-lived victories in Anbar
KIRKUK - Iraqi security forces killed 15 militants in an assault Monday as they retook a northern town and surrounding areas that have repeatedly changed hands in recent days, an official said.
Joint army and police forces backed by helicopters attacked Sulaiman Bek from three sides, forcing militants who had seized the Salaheddin province town to withdraw, local official Talib al-Bayati said.
Militants initially seized part of the Sunni majority town and nearby areas on Thursday, only to be pushed back the following day.
But security forces then withdrew for unknown reasons, Bayati said, and the militants were again in control of part of the town on Saturday and later made further gains.
Bayati said four civilians had been killed and eight wounded since Thursday.
The situation in Sulaiman Bek was a small-scale version of the crisis playing out in the mostly Sunni Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where anti-government fighters have held the city of Fallujah and part of Ramadi for weeks.
The takeovers in Anbar mark the first time anti-government forces have exercised such open control in major cities since the bloody insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
More than 370,000 people may have been displaced by the Anbar violence, according to the United Nations.
Sulaiman Bek has been hit by numerous attacks over the past year, and was briefly seized by militants in late April.
In July, some 150 militants struck with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, and executed 14 Shiite truck drivers on a nearby highway.
Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings.
Foreign leaders have urged the Shiite-led government to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni Arab minority to undercut support for militants.
But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line ahead of a general election scheduled for April.