Iraqi forces reclaim northern town from militants

Published Saturday, February 22, 2014

Iraqi security forces have retaken a northern area from militants after more than a week of heavy fighting during which parts of it repeatedly changed hands, an official said Saturday.

Militants initially seized parts of Salman Bek on February 13, setting off a cycle of clashes in the area which includes a town and several villages.

Dozens of people - militants, security personnel and civilians - were killed in the fighting.

Salman Bek "has now been completely liberated, and there are no longer any gunmen, just police and soldiers," local official Talib al-Bayati told AFP.

The army was reinforcing the area with watchtowers and sand barriers, Bayati said, adding that security forces were also preventing residents who had fled the fighting from returning to their homes.

Army Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi had said that security forces held Salman Bek as of Thursday, but Bayati said it was the next day before they were fully in control.

It was not immediately clear if the militants were forced out during clashes or chose to withdraw.

The situation in Salman Bek is a small-scale version of the crisis being playing out in the Anbar province west of Baghdad.

Anti-government fighters have held the city of Fallujah and part of Ramadi in Anbar for weeks.

The takeovers there mark the first time anti-government forces have exercised such open control in major cities since the bloody insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.

More than 370,000 people may have been displaced by the Anbar violence, according to the United Nations.

Salman Bek has been hit by numerous attacks over the past year, and was briefly seized by militants in late April.

In July, some 150 militants launched an attack with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, and also executed 14 truck drivers on a nearby highway.

Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a period of brutal killings.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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