BAGHDAD – A government airstrike killed 25 al-Qaida-linked militants in a besieged province west of Baghdad amid fierce clashes Tuesday between Iraqi special forces and insurgents battling for control of the key cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi officials said.
The al-Qaida gains in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar – once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops – pose the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikis Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011.
Iraqi forces and fighters from government-allied Sunni tribes have been battling militants to try to recapture the strategic territory, seized last week by an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said the Iraqi air force struck an operations center for the militants on the outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, killing 25 fighters who were holed up inside.
The airstrike came after clashes erupted about 12 miles west of Fallujah following the capture of an army officer and four soldiers a day earlier, provincial spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi said.
Al-Malikis government has vowed to rout the militants, calling on Fallujah residents Monday to expel the al-Qaida fighters to avoid an all-out battle.
Iraqs Cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the situation in Anbar and called for the mobilization of all efforts to support the army and security services in expelling terrorists, according to a government statement.
Military operations would continue, the Cabinet statement added, until Iraq is cleansed of terrorism.
In Washington, the Army general who led U.S. forces through some of the deadliest years of the Iraq war said he opposes sending U.S. combat troops in response to the recent gains by militants.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said he was disappointed by the Iraqi governments loss of control of strategic territory, but the U.S. approach now should be to remain engaged diplomatically to help Iraqi leaders get their political system back on track.