CAIRO — Rebels and Iraqi police in the volatile Anbar province say the Iraqi government has lost control of the city of Fallujah to al-Qaida militants after days of fighting.
The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is active in both countries, pushed police out of the city center after shelling in the city had been reported from Friday night into Saturday.
Arab media is reporting civilian casualties from the shelling and from fighting raging in areas surrounding the city.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the country's forces will not retreat from predominantly Sunni Anbar province until they "eliminate" al-Qaida militants there.
"The people of Anbar province are now standing shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi armed forces," he said. "This is the true stance of Iraqis. [The people of Anbar province] are once again carrying weapons to chase al-Qaida members. This is the real attitude of Iraqis."
Maliki warned that Arab states — he did not specify which — abetting Islamic extremists would be engulfed by the "raging fire of terrorism" themselves, and urged all Iraqis to support the government and armed forces.
The mostly-Sunni residents of Anbar have been locked in a struggle with the prime minister, whose forces overran a protest camp inside Ramadi last week, and also stormed a sit-in camp in the Anbar town of Hawija last April.
On Friday, al-Qaida militants raised their flag over government buildings in Fallujah, about 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, and declared an independent Islamic state.
Witnesses said the militants cut power lines in the city late Friday and ordered residents not to use backup generators.
Arab satellite channels reported that pro-al-Qaida militants also fought government troops near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, in an attempt to liberate Islamic militants being held inside the facility. Iraqi combat helicopters reportedly bombed militant positions to drive them back.
A local journalist who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution told The Washington Post that police and other government-aligned forces had abandoned Fallujah and that al-Qaida had burned all Iraqi national flags.
A tribal leader in Ramadi who fought alongside U.S. troops in 2007 also told The Post his fighters had joined police in ejecting al-Qaida loyalists.
Growing humanitarian concern
Iraq's Sunni Parliament Speaker Ousama Nujeify has called on the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Organization (IFRC) to deliver humanitarian aid to residents of Fallujah.
The humanitarian situation inside Fallujah has been described as "extremely bad" by a number of eyewitnesses.
One Fallujah resident who withheld his name told an Iraqi TV station that he and his family have trouble coping with the deteriorating conditions inside the city, especially since Islamic militants blew up several power stations, blacking out the city.
"Food is running short inside the city and conditions are becoming critical," he said.
A young man with a small child also complained that vital necessities such as tahini, gas, gasoline and bread are running short, and that children are frightened because by the shelling.
Test for Maliki
Fighting across the vast open spaces of western Iraq has become a severe test of the prime minister's ability to hold the country together and prevent full-scale civil war.
The region's explosion of violence is pitting al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremists, who now control large swaths of the region west of Baghdad, against forces of the Shi'ite-dominated central government.
Government forces in the west are backed by local tribesmen who have chosen to align themselves with Baghdad rather than with al-Qaida-linked fighters, and U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf noted the United States was working to support "in every possible way" several tribes that have revolted against ISIS.
Anbar province was the center of the Sunni insurgency during the eight-year presence of U.S. military forces, which withdrew from the country in December 2011. More than 1,300 U.S. military personnel were killed in the region.