Radical Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida are tightening their grip on Iraq’s Anbar province, mounting a serious challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Analysts say the fresh fighting is the latest evidence the Syrian civil war is spilling over, causing sectarian violence and bloodshed around the region.
For the first time since U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, al-Qaida-linked militants have seized parts of key cities in the desert leading to the Syrian border.
Militants have taken over neighborhoods in Fallujah and Ramadi in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Sunni extremism.
The militants are members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the most hardline jihadists battling in the Syrian civil war.
The uprising against Damascus has been going on for three years and analysts like David Pollock of the Washington Institute say it is spreading across the border.
“The most extreme, most radical, most fundamentalist, even terrorist parts of the Syrian opposition are the ones that have gained more control on the border with Iraq and so that is spilling over into Iraq," said Pollock.
The Baghdad government has been hitting back, firing missiles at rebel vehicles and hideouts.
The United States is rushing air-to-ground Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to help with the fight.
But Secretary of State John Kerry says no U.S. troops will join the battle.
“So we are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground; this is their fight," said Kerry.
Violence between Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government and the Sunni minority has claimed thousands of lives.
Sectarian clashes are destabilizing the country.
Again, David Pollock.
“It is not just a matter of bullets. It is a matter of popular legitimacy or at least acceptance and in large parts of the country unfortunately, the Iraqi government is losing that legitimacy," he said.
After years of fierce fighting in Iraq, U.S. troops defeated al-Qaida in Anbar by recruiting and arming local tribesmen to fight the militants.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not continue that relationship and instead alienated many of his Sunni opponents.
Analyst Bill Roggio spoke to VOA via Skype.
“We are going to learn whether they can get this situation under control. But when two major Iraqi cities fall completely or partially under enemy control I think at that point you have to say the situation has spiraled out of control," said Roggio.
The Iraqi Army has deployed tanks and troops in Anbar and civilians are fleeing the fighting.