Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda have taken full control of Iraq's western city of Fallujah, prompting an exodus of civilians, witnesses and local officials said Saturday, dpa reported.
"It has turned into a ghost town," a resident said. "Everything is closed, and streets are empty except for gunmen, and gunfire is frequently heard."
Militants from the Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant have seized large areas in Fallujah and Ramadi, two key cities in the western province of Anbar, after government forces cleared out an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi on Monday.
"Around 9,000 families out of 31,000 have fled the city due to the intensity of fighting there," said Faleh al-Eissawi, an official at the Anbar local council.
He added that Fallujah is suffering a "hard humanitarian situation" due to a shortage of basic services.
"Armed groups are now in full control of the city. There are no security forces there any more," he told the independent broadcaster Alsumaria News.
The militants' takeover of Fallujah was completed one day after Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen killed Abu Abdel-Rahman al-Baghdadi, a key leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Local media reported that at least 30 jihadists had been killed in an airstrike launched by government aircraft on the outskirts of Fallujah on Saturday.
In December, the Iraqi military launched an operation in Anbar after 16 military personnel, including a senior commander, were killed in an attack by militants.
The region was the site of major US operations during its 2003-11 Iraq War and the US State Department said Saturday it was concerned by recent developments and was working with the Iraqi government and local leaders fighting against terrorist groups.
"We are following events in Iraq's Anbar province very closely and are concerned by efforts of the terrorist al-Qaeda/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to assert its authority in Syria as well as Iraq," spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "Their barbarism against civilians of Ramadi and Fallujah and against Iraqi Security Forces is on display for all to see."
Rising violence has raised the prospect of a return to the sectarian violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
According to UN estimates, 8,868 people were killed in 2013, the highest annual death toll in Iraq in five years.
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