Sunni gunmen overrun more turf in Iraq's Ramadi
RAMADI - Sunni fighters including Al-Qaeda-linked militants have overrun several more areas of Ramadi, one of two Iraqi cities near Baghdad at the centre of a weeks-long crisis, police said on Tuesday.
Iraqi forces and allied tribes had in the past few days been retaking areas of the Anbar provincial capital from the militants and anti-government tribal fighters, but the latest setback could prolong the standoff still further.
Parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, which lies just 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Baghdad, fell out of government control more than two weeks ago, the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
In Ramadi, clashes that began late on Monday evening and carried on into Tuesday resulted in gunmen taking control of all or parts of a half-dozen neighbourhoods in the south and centre of the city, according to a police captain and an AFP journalist.
Among the areas were two that police and allied tribesmen had wrested from them only days earlier.
Two policemen were killed and five others were wounded in the firefights, and three police vehicles were set ablaze, according to Dr. Ahmed al-Ani at the city's main hospital.
Sporadic clashes continued on Tuesday in the affected neighbourhoods, while shelling struck the Andalus neighbourhood of central Ramadi, damaging houses in the area, a police officer said.
Civil servants had largely returned to work and most shops were reopened, an AFP journalist said, but schools in the city remained closed.
Gunfights also erupted in the Albubali area between Ramadi and Fallujah where security forces have repeatedly clashed with militants.
In Fallujah, government employees returned to work, but the city remained in the control of gunmen, according to an AFP journalist in the city.
The Iraqi army, which has largely stayed out of Fallujah, stayed on the city's eastern frontier on Tuesday. Shelling in the city left two people wounded, witnesses said, while brief clashes could be heard in the city 0 Monday evening.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged Iraqi leaders to address the "root causes" of violence in the country, echoing calls from diplomats for Baghdad to focus on political reconciliation in a bid to end the Anbar crisis, in addition to ongoing military operations.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled out dialogue with militants as his government grapples with Iraq's worst prolonged period of bloodshed since 2008, ahead of April 30 parliamentary elections.