Battles are raging today in Fallujah and Ramadi, the two biggest cities in Iraq's Anbar province, between government troops and Sunni militants under the banner of the al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. After days of fighting—which began when Nouri al-Maliki ordered protest camps in the cities dismantled—militants claimed control of most of Fallujah last night, and 60% of Ramadi, the Wall Street Journal reports. In the midst of relative calm this morning, mosque loudspeakers in Fallujah urged shops to reopen, and residents to gather in park for Friday prayers, the New York Times reports. As the prayers were concluding, masked fighters appeared and took the stage, saying:
- "We declare Falluja as an Islamic state and we call on you to be on our side. We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids. We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule."
The calm was broken. Gunmen blew up a series of government buildings, including the police headquarters and mayor's office. Iraqi security forces and local tribesmen fought back, leaving at least 21 dead. "There is no way to let al-Qaeda keep any foothold in Anbar," one tribal leader tells Reuters
. But the battle "is not easy because they are hiding inside residential areas." The campaign is the most direct sign yet of Syria's civil war spilling beyond its borders. It's also significant for America, because Anbar, and particularly Fallujah, were the sites of some of the Iraq war's bloodiest battles. "It was all for naught," a former Marine who fought in the second battle of Fallujah lamented to ABC