Militants launch major assault on Iraq's Samarra
Militants launched a major attack on the Iraqi city of Samarra on Thursday, killing six people and occupying neighbourhoods, in the latest display of their reach and the weakness of security forces.
The militants, travelling in dozens of vehicles, some mounted with anti-aircraft guns, attacked a major checkpoint on the southeast side of Samarra, killing the security forces guarding it and burning their vehicles, witnesses said.
They then took control of several areas of the city, north of Baghdad, according to witnesses, who reported seeing the bodies of both security forces and gunmen in the streets.
Helicopters were seen firing into the city.
A police major and a doctor said six police had been killed and 24 people wounded in the fighting.
The police officer said security forces have withdrawn from other areas to defend a revered Shiite shrine in central Samarra, which was bombed in February 2006, sparking a brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands.
The assault comes as a standoff between anti-government fighters and security forces in Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad, enters its sixth month.
The city of Fallujah, just a short drive from Baghdad, and some parts of provincial capital Ramadi, farther west, have been outside government control since early January.
On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had delivered medical supplies to Fallujah for the first time since January, describing conditions in the city as "extremely dire".
"The situation is very worrying," said Patricia Guiote, head of the Red Cross sub-delegation in Baghdad and the leader of the five-member team that delivered the supplies to Fallujah.
"People are enduring a severe shortage of food, water and health care. Services at the hospital, which is the only facility still able to provide treatment for the injured and the sick, have been seriously affected by the fighting."
The ICRC said the team delivering the supplies found "immense needs and a situation that is extremely dire."
"People in the city are living through a terrible ordeal."
Upwards of 350 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in months of conflict in Fallujah, according to Doctor Ahmed Shami at the city's hospital.
Violence in Iraq is running at its highest levels since 2006-2007, the height of the country's Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict.
More than 900 people were killed last month, according to figures separately compiled by the United Nations and the government.
And over 4,000 have been killed so far this year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.
Officials blame external factors for the rise in bloodshed, particularly the civil war in neighbouring Syria, and insist wide-ranging operations against militants are having an impact.
But the violence continues unabated, with analysts and diplomats saying the Shiite-led government needs to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunni Arab minority to reduce support for militancy.