Iraqi military officials say government forces and allied militiamen have begun an all-out offensive to drive militants from the central city of Ramadi. Fierce fighting has been reported.
"The Iraqi army launched a large operation with helicopter cover against Daash, al-Qaeda and terrorists in Ramadi," defense ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari said, according to state television. He was using terms that the Iraqi security forces often use to describe militants.
The operation reportedly involved police, pro-government militiamen and SWAT forces. It aimed to take back key neighborhoods in the south and center of Ramadi, the capital of the largely Sunni Anbar province, which lies to the west of Baghdad.
Members of an al Qaeda offshoot - known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - have taken over parts of the city since last December, along with the entire nearby city of Fallujah. The militants are being supported by other non-al-Qaeda groups that oppose the Shiite-led government.
Fighting in the Ramadi area originally erupted on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp. Anti-government militants took over a large section of Ramadi and all of Fallujah after security forces withdrew.
The standoff in Anbar, together with ongoing violence across the rest of Iraq, have left an estimated 650 people dead so far this month.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Sunday accused "diabolical" and "treacherous" Arab countries of being behind the recent prolonged surge of violence in the country, without identifying any specific nations.
"Iraq is the target for some countries that are backing terrorism, and backing evil," Maliki said in a speech in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Iraqi officials have alleged that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported disaffected Sunni Arabs in western Iraq during anti-government protests over the past year.
Iraq is seeing its worst bloodshed since 2008, when the country teetered on the brink of an all-out civil war.
The country is scheduled to hold elections in April.
tj/hc (AFP, AP)