Armed tribesmen and not militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized two cities in Anbar, Al Arabiya News Channel reported the governor of the Sunni-majority province as saying on Saturday.
While ISIS militants - coupled with local Sunni rebels - started their surprise offensive by seizing Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul on June 10, Anbar governor said armed tribesmen were the ones who claimed control over Rawa and Ana in Anbar.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Rawa, Hussein AIi al-Aujail, told the Associated Press that Sunni militants captured the town Saturday.
The local army and police force pulled out when the militants took control, Aujail said.
He said militants ransacked government offices in the town, along the Euphrates River some 275 kilometers northwest of Baghdad.
Qaim crossing captured
The news comes after the al-Qaeda breakaway ISIS, along with allied militants, seized Qaim and its crossing, about 320 kilometers west of Baghdad, after killing some 30 Iraqi troops in daylong clashes Friday.
Police and army officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity with the Associated Press because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, said people were now crossing back and forth freely.
Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi acknowledged Qaim’s fall, telling journalists that troops aided by local tribesmen sought to clear the city of “terrorists.”
While Sunni militants have controlled the city of Fallujah in Anbar and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi since January, militants’ seizing these towns appears to be a new offensive in the western province.
Militants led by ISIS have seized a vast swathe of territory in northern Iraq since overrunning Mosul.
The vast Anbar province stretches from the western edges of Baghdad all the way to Jordan and Syria to the northwest. The fighting in Anbar has greatly disrupted use of the highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, a key artery for goods and passengers.
Blast in Baiji refinery
The militants have also attempted to fully control Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.
As a result of the fighting with Iraqi forces, the Baiji refinery in the Sunni province of Salaheddin has been shut down and the supply route to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region cut off.
On Saturday, sources told Al Arabiya News Channel that a mortar attack has targeted one of the oil tanks in the refinery.
Despite coming under heavy attack from ISIS in recent days, Iraqi government forces still control the Baiji refinery.
Iraq has urged Obama’s administration to support Baghdad in its fight against the militants who wanted to see an end to embattled Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki’s “sectarian” rule.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama has warned that no amount of U.S. firepower could keep Iraq together if its political leaders did not disdain sectarianism and work to unite the country.
Obama told CNN on Friday - a day after announcing the dispatch of 300 Special Forces advisors to Iraq following a lightning advance by extreme Sunni radicals - that American sacrifices had given Iraq a chance at a stable democracy, but it had been squandered.
(With Associated Press)