BAGHDAD – The city center of Iraq’s Fallujah has fallen completely into the hands of fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, police said Saturday, yet another victory for the hard-line group that has made waves across the region in recent days.
ISIL is also one of the strongest rebel units in Syria, where it has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds and kidnapped and killed anyone it deems critical of its rule. Also on Saturday, it claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in a Shiite-dominated neighborhood in Lebanon.
Hadi Razeij, head of the Anbar province police force, said police had left the city center entirely and had positioned themselves on the edge of town.
“The walls of the city are in the hands of the police force, but the people of Fallujah are the prisoners of ISIL,” he said, speaking on Arabic language satellite broadcaster al-Arabiya.
Along with Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Fallujah was a stronghold of Sunni insurgents during the U.S.-led war. Al-Qaida militants largely took both cities over last week and have been fending off incursions by government forces there since.
In a speech in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said government forces would press on to clear the province of militants.
“There will be no retreat until we eliminate this gang and rid the people of Anbar of their evil acts,” he said. “The people of Anbar asked the government for help, they called us to come to rescue them from terrorists.”
Dozens of families fled Fallujah, sheltering in schools in nearby towns, provincial official Dari al-Rishawi said. It appeared there was a shortage of fuel inside the city and that and food prices had doubled because supplies could no longer enter.
Hundreds of ISIL fighters were in the city, he added, mostly armed with heavy mounted machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. On Saturday, Sunni tribesmen seeking to push out ISIL had yet to enter the city.
The U.S. State Department expressed its concern in a statement, saying it would continue to work with Iraqi authorities and tribes allied against ISIL “to defeat our common enemy.”
“We are also in contact with tribal leaders from Anbar province who are showing great courage as they fight to eject these terrorist groups from their cities,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said.