BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi officials are airlifting some 4,000 volunteers to an embattled city west of Baghdad to help bolster government forces locked in a running battle with Sunni militants there, authorities said Saturday.
Around 2,500 of the volunteers arrived in Ramadi, located 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of the capital, on Friday and are to be joined by the remaining 1,500 on Saturday, said Gen. Rasheed Flayeh, the commander of operations in Anbar province. The men are being ferried out to Ramadi from Baghdad by helicopter, Flayeh said.
The vast majority of volunteers are Shiites who answered a call from the country’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to defend Iraq from the militants who have overrun of much of the country’s north and west over the past month. The Sunni militant blitz is led by the Islamic State extremist group, which has unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by Shariah law in the territory it controls straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
Ramadi is the capital of Anbar, an overwhelmingly Sunni province and one of the most active battle fronts in Iraq.
Sunni militants seized control of the Anbar city of Fallujah, and parts of Ramadi in January. The government has since reasserted its control of Ramadi, but Fallujah remains in insurgent hands.