BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Islamic State militants gained ground in western Iraq on Wednesday, overrunning several villages on the edge of the capital of Anbar province, police sources and local officials said.
Iraqi police came under attack from the insurgents at dawn in Albu Ghanim and withdrew from the area, about 5 km (3 miles) northeast of the provincial capital Ramadi, sending hundreds of families fleeing.
The militants blew up the police station in Albu Ghanim and advanced further toward Ramadi, seizing the villages of Sofia, Albu Khalifa and Sor, police sources and members of the provincial council said.
Abu Jasim, who left Albu Ghanim soon after it fell early on Wednesday, said the insurgents had set up a checkpoint at the main entrance to the village and planted their black flag there.
“IS stopped us and said we have came to liberate you from these Safavids and rejectionists,” Abu Jasim said. Safavid and rejectionist are derogatory terms used by hardline Sunni Islamists to refer to Shi’ites.
“We told them we were leaving because the kids were terrified. They let us go, and we saw bodies lying in the streets, some police and others civilians.”
The militants have been making inroads on Ramadi’s northern periphery since the government announced a new offensive last week to recapture parts of the Sunni heartland of Anbar, large parts of which Islamic State has held for the past year.
Provincial council member Sabah Karhout said in an interview with Sharqiya TV late on Wednesday that a “lack of planning, financial and military means” had led to the recent losses in Anbar.
Speaking to the same channel, Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi blamed the police for pulling out and said they would be held accountable. A spokesman for the interior ministry rebuffed him.
Two federal police battalions arrived in Ramadi on Wednesday to reinforce the troops, according to a colonel and a policeman.
Another resident who left Albu Ghanim said the militants had declared their victory via loudspeaker in the village mosque. Abu Amar said his son, a policeman, was missing, and he had heard the militants had a list of conscripts whom they had already begun killing.
Police said four pro-government Sunni fighters had been killed by Islamic State in Albu Ghanim, and the bodies of four policemen and two civilians were brought to Ramadi hospital, according to medical sources.
Large parts of Anbar had slipped from the government’s grasp even before Islamic State seized the northern city of Mosul last June and proclaimed a caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
Security forces and Shi’ite paramilitaries have since regained some ground in Iraq, although core Sunni territories remain under Islamic State control, including Nineveh province, of which Mosul is capital, and most of Anbar.
The new Anbar campaign was intended to build on a victory in the city of Tikrit, which Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite paramilitaries retook this month.
But the Sunni jihadists have struck back in Anbar as well as Baiji, where they blasted through the security perimeter around Iraq’s largest refinery several days ago.
The operations command for Salahuddin province in which Baiji is located said skirmishes between security forces and the militants continued on Wednesday inside the refinery compound.
The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement on Wednesday it had conducted air strikes in support of Iraqi forces in both Baiji and around Ramadi.
Reporting by Saif Hameed; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Louise Ireland