Al-Qaeda group claims control of Fallujah
The capture of Fallujah came amid an explosion of violence across the western desert province of Anbar in which local tribes, Iraqi security forces, and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have been fighting one another for days in a confusingly chaotic three-way war.
Elsewhere in the province, local tribal militias claimed they were gaining ground against the al-Qaeda militants who surged into urban areas from their desert strongholds this week after clashes erupted between local residents and the Iraqi security forces.
In Fallujah, where Marines fought the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war in 2004, the militants appeared to have the upper hand, underscoring the extent to which the Iraqi security forces have struggled to sustain the gains made by U.S. troops before they withdrew in December 2011.
Events Friday suggested the fight may have been in vain.
"At the moment, there is no presence of the Iraqi state in Fallujah," said a local journalist who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety. "The police and the army have abandoned the city, al-Qaeda has taken down all the Iraqi flags and burned them, and it has raised its own flag on all the buildings."
At Friday prayers, held outdoors and attended by thousands of people, a masked ISIS fighter took the podium and addressed the crowd, declaring the establishment of an "Islamic emirate" in Fallujah and promising to help residents fight the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Iranian allies.
"We don't want to hurt you. We don't want to take any of your possessions," the man told the crowd, according to the journalist, who attended the prayers. "We want you to reopen the schools and institutions and return to your normal lives."
The extent of the militants' control over the city was unclear, however. Some local tribes were challenging their presence, and there were scattered firefights, according to another Fallujah resident who also did not want to be named because he is afraid. The Iraqi army fired shells into Fallujah, killing at least 17 people, and most residents spent the day hiding indoors, he said.
In the provincial capital, Ramadi, tribal fighters have succeeded in ejecting al-Qaeda loyalists, according to Ahmed Abu Risha, a tribal leader who fought alongside U.S. troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq following the "surge" of U.S. troops in 2007.
The tribesmen are cooperating with Iraqi police, Abu Risha said, and are receiving weapons and support from the Iraqi army. Among those killed in the fighting was Abu Abdul Rahman al-Baghdadi, the emir, or leader, of ISIS in Ramadi.
"All the tribes of Anbar are fighting against al-Qaeda," he said. "We are happy this fight is taking place. We will confront them face to face, and we will win this battle."
But it was unclear whether all the tribal fighters battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants were doing so in alliance with the Iraqi government. The current violence evolved from a yearlong, largely peaceful Sunni revolt against Maliki's Shiite-dominated government that drew inspiration from the Arab Spring protests.