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Originally published Friday, January 3, 2014 at 7:49 PM

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Militants claim control of embattled Iraq city

Assertions by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters that they were in complete control of Fallujah were disputed by government security forces and an alliance of tribal leaders who have joined them.

The New York Times

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BAGHDAD — Black-clad Sunni militants of al-Qaida destroyed the Fallujah police headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night.

The advances by al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — came after days of fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Iraq’s Anbar province. The region is a center of Sunni extremism that has grown more intense in reaction to al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the neighboring civil war in Syria.

Assertions by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters that they were in complete control of Fallujah were disputed by government security forces and an alliance of tribal leaders who have joined them. By nightfall, the security forces and tribal militia members had recaptured a part of the main street and a municipal building.

Mohamed al-Isawi, head of the Fallujah police, said in a telephone interview that he was gathering men for what he hoped would be a decisive battle to retake control of the city.

But Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters still appeared to have the upper hand, witnesses and others reached by telephone said, and there was no question the group had scored a propaganda victory against al-Maliki, whose authority over Anbar province has been severely undermined in the two years since U.S. forces left the country.

The group’s fighters cut power lines in Fallujah and ordered residents not to use their backup generators. In one area of the city, a militant said over a mosque loudspeaker: “We are God’s rule on Earth! No one can defeat God’s will!”

The group’s advance came hours after a period of calm had returned to the city, where traffic police and street cleaners resumed work during the day and mosque loudspeakers exhorted stores to reopen so residents could buy food.

The calm evaporated when the militants appeared at the close of Friday Prayer — which had been moved by local imams to a public park, away from the combat zones — and seized the stage, waving the al-Qaida flag and daring the authorities to evict them. “We declare Fallujah as an Islamic state, and we call on you to be on our side!” one fighter shouted, according to witnesses.

Referring to al-Maliki’s government and its Shiite ally, Iran, the fighter added: “We are here to defend you from the army of al-Maliki and the Iranian Safavids,” a reference to the Persian Empire that ruled present-day Iran and Iraq hundreds of years ago.

The resumed fighting included other areas of Anbar province, including its largest city, Ramadi.

The violence has pitted the al-Qaida-affiliated Sunni extremists against the forces of the Shiite-dominated central government, backed by local tribesmen who are not strong supporters of the government but, in this struggle, have decided to side with the army and police against al-Qaida.

For the al-Qaida militants in Iraq, who are fighting under the same name as the most extremist Sunni rebels in Syria, the gains they have made in Anbar appear to represent a significant step toward realizing the long-held goal of transforming Iraq and Syria into one battlefield for the same cause: establishing a Sunni Islamist state.

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