x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Qaeda-linked militants in Fallujah have enough weapons to “occupy Baghdad”

Amid a series of bombings in Iraq, the country's deputy interior minister says that Al Qaeda-linked militants in the city of Fallujah have been reinforced and threaten the capital.

BAGHDAD // A series of bombings in central Iraq killed 28 people on Monday, as a government official claimed that Al Qaida-linked fighters have dug in to a city they seized last month and possess enough heavy weapons to storm into the country’s capital.

The bombings, mainly in Baghdad targeting marketplaces and court buildings, came as the army presses an all-out offensive announced on Sunday to retake the area but has come up against heavy resistance.

Since December, members of Iraq’s Al Qaeda branch — known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) — have taken over parts of Ramadi, the capital of the largely Sunni western province of Anbar. They also control the centre of the nearby city of Fallujah, along with other non-Al Qaida groups that also oppose the Shiite-led government.

After days of tense calm in Fallujah, a former insurgent bastion a short drive from Baghdad, tribal chiefs and witnesses said Al Qaeda-linked militants were increasingly exerting their authority in the city on Monday.

Fighters affiliated with the Isil had set up an Islamic court, kidnapped senior officials including a top police officer and several tribal sheikhs, and broadcast calls over mosque loudspeakers for others to join them in the fight against Iraqi security forces.

“Daash does not accept anything that we decide,” said one tribal sheikh, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by militants, referring to Isil by its commonly-used Arabic acronym.

“They want everybody to work under their command, under their regime.”

Another resident of the city, who gave his name as Abu Osama, said militants had imposed strict codes in some neighbourhoods, including barring women from visiting local markets and men from wearing Western clothes or shaving their beards.

“The weapons that were brought inside Fallujah are huge and advanced and frankly enough to occupy Baghdad,” the deputy interior minister, Adnan Al Asadi, said in a speech, adding that Iraqi forces are still fighting “fierce battles” there and in Ramadi. He did not elaborate on the type or quantity of the weapons.

Inside Ramadi, police said a roadside bomb hit a police convoy, killing two policemen and a local television cameraman who had been accompanying the police during the clashes.

The deadliest of Monday’s blasts hit an outdoor market south of the capital, killing seven people and wounding 13, police said. A bomb in a nearby commercial street killed two more, while another three died and seven were wounded in a southeastern district. Another bomb in a northern suburb killed three and wounded six.

Two separate car bombs near court buildings also killed seven and wounded 22, said police. Later, a car bomb went off in a commercial street in western Baghdad, killing three people and wounding nine others.

Hospital officials confirmed the death toll for all attacks. All officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to talk to media.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the latest attacks. Al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, which has been gaining strength in recent months, frequently attack soft targets such as cafes and markets in an effort to undermine the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Tuesday’s attacks bring the death toll for this month to at least 387. Many attacks may go unreported.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse