Iraq seeks to recapture Ramadi neighbourhoods in major assault
RAMADI - Iraqi forces launched a major assault Sunday on a Sunni Arab city partially in the control of anti-government fighters in a bid to end a weeks-long crisis ahead of elections.
The operation, which involved police, pro-government militiamen and SWAT forces, sought to wrest back key neighbourhoods of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and one of two cities where the authorities lost vast swathes of territory about three weeks ago.
It came as Jordan said it would host a US training programme for Iraqi forces grappling with the country's worst bloodshed since 2008 and the ongoing deadly standoff in Anbar which have combined to leave more than 650 people dead so far this month.
Diplomats including UN chief Ban Ki-moon have urged Baghdad to pursue political reconciliation to undercut support for militancy, but with an election looming in April, Iraqi political leaders have not wanted to be seen to capitulate and have focused on wide-ranging security operations.
Iraqi troops, policemen, SWAT forces and tribal fighters moved into five neighbourhoods of Ramadi on Sunday, with helicopters providing them cover and firing on targets in the sprawling Malaab district that has been at the centre of fighting between anti-government fighters and security forces and their tribal allies.
"The Iraqi army launched a large operation with helicopter cover against Daash, Al-Qaeda and terrorists in Ramadi," defence ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari said, according to state television, employing terms frequently used by the Iraqi security forces to describe militants.
A police lieutenant colonel and a journalist in Ramadi both confirmed the operation had begun.
All of the neighbourhoods targeted lie in the south or centre of the city.
The operation will seek to take back momentum from anti-government fighters, who have expanded their hold on Ramadi in the past week after police and allied tribesmen trumpeted gains there earlier this month.
A large section of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, both former insurgent bastions close to Baghdad, fell from government control late last month.
It was the first time anti-government fighters have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
Fighting originally erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.
It spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
Amman on Sunday said it would host US training for Iraqi forces, after an American defence official said Washington was waiting for an agreement with Jordan or another country to go ahead with the programme.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told The Washington Post in an interview published on Thursday that Baghdad specifically needed US "counter-terrorism" training.
The US defence official said Washington was also preparing to ship "several thousand" M-16 and M-4 assault rifles as well as ammunition to Iraq, after having already provided missiles to Maliki's government.
And on Saturday the White House said that Vice President Joe Biden had spoken to Maliki to discuss Washington's support for Iraq's fight against jihadists.
"The two leaders agreed on the importance of the Iraqi government's continued outreach to local and tribal leaders in Anbar province," the White House said.
Violence also struck elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, with nine people killed in restive cities north of Baghdad, a day after a wave of bombings in the capital killed 25.
More than 650 people have been killed already this month, according to a tally, part of a protracted surge in unrest nationwide.
Diplomats and analysts say that the Shiite-led authorities must do more to address underlying grievances in the disaffected Sunni Arab minority in order to take away support for militants carrying out attacks.
But Maliki and other officials insist the security operations are making headway.