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On Sunday, conflicting news reports continued to indicate that the Iraqi government may have lost control of Fallujah, a major city in Anbar, and that the provincial capital of Ramadi could fall to Al-Qaeda fighters.
Over the weekend, fighters of the Al-Qaeda group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured the western city of Fallujah after engaging in ground battles with the Iraqi Army and tribal forces known as sahwa who had fought and dislodged them in 2006.
Last week, Iraqi security forces arrested a prominent Sunni member of parliament, accused of supporting terrorism, killing his brother and several of his security guards in the process.
Security forces also forcibly ended a year-long protest in Ramadi which began when Sunni tribes there called on the Maliki government to release detainees and deliver on promises made to politically and militarily integrate the sahwa and their leaders.
Further worsening the crisis, Sunni tribes are divided with some backing the army while others are openly sympathetic to ISIL.
ISIL’s Al-Qaeda precursor militia was never fully routed from Anbar province. In 2006, they moved northward into the ethnically mixed province of Nineveh and have since destabillised the city of Mosul, carrying out attacks on police and the army, and assassinating public figures.
When the civil war broke out in Syria, these militia rebranded themselves as ISIL and moved much of their operations into Aleppo and other cities in the north east.
Buoyed by their successes in Syria, ISIL was emboldened enough to carry out brazen attacks in Iraq, including a jailbreak of 500 inmates in July and routing Iraqi commando operations against them.
They have continued to use car bombings in Baghdad and several of Iraq’s provinces.
On Sunday, Maliki vowed to destroy the “terrorists” and said a major military operation, including the use of combat helicopters and aerial support, was under way.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that clashes between ISIL and the army left at least 34 people dead – 22 soldiers and 12 civilians.
On Monday, the Iraqi military said it was positioned on the outskirts of Fallujah waiting for support from Anbar tribes to enter the city. Lieutenant-General Rasheed Fleih said a military operation in the city could take two to three days.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry told reporters. “That is exactly what the President [Barack Obama] and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq. So we are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground.”