The Iraqi government has admitted that it has lost control of the town of Fallujah to al Qaeda-linked militants. The town was an insurgent stronghold during the US-led occupation.
A senior security official in Anbar province told the AFP news agency on Saturday that "Fallujah is under the control of ISIL," referring to al Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
An AFP reporter in Fallujah also said that ISIL seemed to be in control, with no security forces or anti-al-Qaeda militiamen visible on the streets.
"It has turned into a ghost town," a resident told agency dpa. "Everything is closed, and streets are empty except for gunmen, and gunfire is frequently heard."
The jihadist occupation of Fallujah took place a day after Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni fighters killed Abu Abdel-Rahman al-Baghdadi, a key ISIL leader.
Parts of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, two major cities west of Baghdad, have been held by militants for days, following fighting that broke out Monday.
Fourteen died in and near Ramadi on Monday and Tuesday. Though later tolls were not immediately clear, more than 100 people were killed on Friday in Ramadi and Fallujah, in the country's deadliest single day in years.
Hundreds of gunmen, some bearing the black flags often flown by jihadists, gathered at outdoor weekly Muslim prayers in central Fallujah on Friday, a witness said.
The fighting provides an uncomfortable reminder of the US-led occupation that began in 2003. American troops, aided by Sunni tribesmen in the Sahwa militia forces, fought for years from late 2006 to wrest control of the region west of Baghdad - the governorate of al Anbar - from militants.
US forces suffered almost one-third of their total Iraq fatalities in Anbar, according to independent website icasualties.org.
The ISIL - a new incarnation of the jihadist insurgency - has made a comeback following the US withdrawal and the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011.
The Ramadi protest camp operation pushed Sunni tribes into conflict with the government, and the al Qaeda-related group has successfully used the wave of popular Sunni anger to its advantage.
Increasing violence has raised the prospect of a return to the sectarian violence that almost sparked a civil war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. According to United Nations estimates, nearly 9,000 people were killed in 2013, the highest annual death toll in Iraq in five years.
bk/msh (AFP, dpa)
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