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Iraq announces offensive against al-Qaida

BAGHDAD – Iraqi government forces and allied tribal militias launched an all-out offensive Sunday to push al-Qaida-linked militants from a city west of Baghdad, a military official said.

Since late December, members of an al-Qaida offshoot – known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – have taken over parts of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the largely Sunni western province of Anbar. They also control the center of the nearby city of Fallujah, along with other non-al-Qaida groups that also oppose the Shiite-led government.

The officer said fierce clashes were taking place, but gave no details.

Hours after the offensive was announced, Iraq’s Prime Minister vowed to continue fighting “terrorism,” but left the door open for any political solution.

“Our battle is firstly to beat and eliminate terrorism,” Nouri al-Maliki said in a speech in the southern city of Nasiriyah. “Though we welcome any solution, any proposal and any political meeting that should realize the priority of destroying terrorism, al-Qaida, its formations and its allies,” al-Maliki added.

To the east of Baghdad, gunmen opened fire Sunday on a checkpoint run by an anti-al-Qaida, pro-government Sunni tribal militia outside the city of Baqouba, killing the local leader and four assistants, a police and medical officials said. The former al-Qaida stronghold Baqouba is located about 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of the capital.

The Sunni militia, known as the Awakening Council, was formed by U.S. forces during the height of the insurgency. They are seen as traitors by al-Qaida’s local branch and other militant groups.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.

Violence has escalated in Iraq over the past year, particularly since late last month after authorities dismantled an anti-government Sunni protest camp and arrested a Sunni lawmaker on terrorism charges. To alleviate the tension, the army pulled back from the two cities, but that allowed al-Qaida militants to seize control.

Last year, the country saw its highest annual death toll since the worst of the country’s sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 in 2013. Sunday’s attack on the Awakening Council members brought the death toll so far this month to 364, according to an Associated Press tally.

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Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sinansm

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