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Clashes, shelling as 140,000 flee Iraq conflict

BAGHDAD, Jan 24, (Agencies): Violence in parts of Anbar province held by antigovernment fighters killed three people as the United Nations warned Friday of Iraq’s worst displacement since its brutal 2006-08 sectarian conflict. More than 140,000 people have fled their homes in the mostly-desert province since unrest erupted in late December, as security forces and their tribal allies have been locked in a deadly standoff with militants, including those affiliated with the al-Qaedalinked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Foreign leaders including US President Barack Obama have urged Baghdad to pursue political measures to undercut support for militants, but with an election looming in April, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line. Security forces have mounted a massive operation to retake parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi held by antigovernment fighters, and for days have engaged in clashes and exchanged mortar fire.

Shelling which began early Friday of the Ramadi neighbourhoods of Malaab and Albu Faraj, both out of the government’s control, killed two people and wounded 30, security and medical officials said. Government forces and militants also engaged in firefights in Ramadi on Thursday evening, but no casualties were reported. But one person was killed and seven wounded in heavy shelling late on Thursday in Fallujah, a former insurgent bastion also west of Baghdad that is entirely held by militants. Fallujah residents blamed the army for the shelling, but defence officials said the military was not responsible. Parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah have for weeks been in the hands of anti-government fighters, including members of ISIL. It marks the first time militants have exercised such open control in Iraqi cities since the peak of the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

The government often says it is fighting al- Qaeda while Fallujah residents and tribal sheikhs have said ISIL has tightened its grip on the city. But other militant groups and anti-government tribes have also been involved in battling government forces in Anbar. On Friday, the UN warned the continued unrest had sparked Iraq’s worst displacement since the country’s bloody sectarian war from 2006 to 2008 which left tens of thousands dead. More than 140,000 had fled their homes since the conflict began, UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Peter Kessler said, including more than 65,000 in the past week alone. “Many civilians are unable to leave conflictaffected areas where food and fuel are now in short supply,” he said. Meanwhile, US officials are developing plans to use a small number of US special operations forces in Jordan to train Iraqi troops as part of a broader effort to help Iraq fight the growing al-Qaeda threat within its borders. There has been no official request from Iraq yet for the training, but US military leaders and Iraqi officials have been discussing how it would be done, said a senior US official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity. A formal request from Baghdad will likely follow, once the details are worked out. Separately, legislative aides said Thursday  that Congress cleared the way for the United States to provide Iraq with new military equipment to aid its battle against al-Qaeda.

Last week the Pentagon announced that it would soon deliver another installment of small arms and ammunition to the Iraqis, who have been battling militants over the control of Fallujah and Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar. The shipment was expected to include tank ammunition and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, and the relevant congressional committees have approved that sale. Sen Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others had been blocking the long-term transfer of Apache helicopters to Iraq. The concerns centered on the Iraqi government potentially using them for internal crackdowns instead of national defense, and senators repeatedly had pressed the State Department for answers. The aides said Thursday the helicopter sale could clear soon. They demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Over the past year, as violence has escalated in Baghdad and in Sunni-dominated areas, Iraqi officials have pleaded with Washington to help them fight al-Qaeda with weapons and improved intelligence systems — including, potentially, sending US special military forces and CIA advisers to help train and assist counterterror troops. The missiles are expected to be sent soon while delivery of new Apaches will take up to three years. The US plans to lend some of the helicopters to the Iraqis in six months to nine months.

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