About 150 militants belonging to the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have stormed another Iraqi city in an attempt to further consolidate their hold of parts of the country, Al Arabiya’s correspondent reported Thursday.
Using heavy machinery, ISIS militants stormed the eastern walls of Samarra city, which is located 125 kilometers north of Baghdad, and claimed control of five neighborhoods, Iraqi police told the correspondent.
The neighborhoods that fell under ISIS’s control include are al-Muthana, al-Jubairiya, Salah al-Din, al-Shuhda, and parts of the al-Khadhra. They fell after skirmishes with the security forces, which left at least 38 policemen dead.
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 told Agence France-Presse.
They then took control of several areas of the city, to the north of Baghdad, according to witnesses who reported seeing the bodies of both security forces and gunmen in the streets.
An AFP journalist also saw helicopters firing into the city.
Unlike the western province of Anbar, neighboring Syria and Jordan, Samarra which is located in the Sunni-dominated province of Salah al-Din, remained unscathed by the ISIS’s activity until now.
Amad al-Kareem, head of Salah al-Din’s provincial council, told Al Arabiya’s correspondent on Thursday that “yesterday, we warned the authorities of a plan that ISIS was intending to storm Samarra.”
One parliamentarian from Samarra, Najih al-Mizan accused al-Maliki’s administration of faltering and failing to protect the city.
Mizan warned of a similar scenario to 2006, when the golden dome of the al-Askari Mosque, highly-revered by Shiites, was destroyed by bombs, unleashing a bloody sectarian period in Iraq that claimed tens of thousands lives.
A police officer told AFP that security forces withdrew from other areas to defend the revered Shiite shrine in central Samarra.
Al Arabiya’s correspondent said ISIS militants have also targeted one of the leaders of movement al-Sahawat, Adel al-Samaraei, when they attacked his home with explosives.
ISIS also tried to storm government buildings and security headquarters in the city.
The assault comes as a standoff between anti-government fighters and security forces in Anbar 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.
Violence 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 in Iraq 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 an AFP tally.
Officials blame external factors for the rise in bloodshed, particularly the civil war in neighboring 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.