RAMADI, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been trying since late December to reassert control over Fallujah and Ramadi, the key cities in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.
The cities fell out of government control after troops broke up a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi on December 30, sparking an uprising by Sunni militants that only now is subsiding.
In both cities, gunmen from leading antigovernment Sunni tribes, joined by fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took control of the streets, attacking police stations and freeing prisoners.
Iraq's Shi'ite led government has been reluctant to send the army back into the cities, for fear that could help could spark a sectarian civil war. Instead, Baghdad has called on local leaders to try to restore order.
RRF/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Samira Ali Mandee checked in with our reporter in Anbar Province, Abdulkhaliq Muhammad, to describe the situation on the ground.
Is the situation calmer now in Ramadi and Fallujah?
Abdulkhaliq Muhammad: Ramadi City is relatively calm, but only during daylight hours. Yesterday [January 8] there were fierce clashes between the armed groups controlling the southern sector of the city.
In Fallujah, there was a major development...[on January 8]...with the distribution of leaflets throughout the city, signed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, threatening to blow up the homes of all those who actively oppose them by supporting the local government. The fighters are now based in the eastern sector of the city, while the city center is under the control of powerful local clans, who are working together with the civilian-clad local police.
Who are the gunmen who are still competing for control in the cities?
Muhammad: Here in Ramadi, there are a number of factions whose groups are fighting each other. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated gunmen are masked extremists who are well-armed with a variety of weapons. On the other side we have the "clan revolutionaries,"who maintain their presence inside the cities' residential neighborhoods, particularly in Fallujah. They are involved in fighting the Al-Qaeda gunmen and in ensuring that the army doesn't come in. They are thus operating on two fronts.
There are also units of the local police force alongside the tribal fighters. They are dressed as civilians in Fallujah, while those in Ramadi are in their normal security uniforms. They fight alongside the tribes.
The Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters number not more than 300 men and their composition is varied. There are Pakistanis, Afghans, and Arabs of various nationalities. They are led by Abdullah al-Janabi, who hails from Fallujah.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has tried not to use the national army to restore order in Fallujah and Ramadi. Why is that?
Muhammad: Everyone here believes that that the decision [to keep out the army] is the right one -- if the army were to enter the city even simple citizens would take up arms against it. Some see the army as the enemy, but this is incorrect. They have been hurt by teams of special forces, but these are not sanctioned by either the Iraqi Constitution or by the Iraqi army. Those teams used to enter cities and make arbitrary arrests. This has created a fear of the army.
Everyone is looking forward to the departure of all the armed groups from their streets without the army's intervention.
How badly has the recent fighting damaged the economies of Ramadi and Fallujah? Is there enough food now for people? Is there electricity and water?
Muhammad: Fallujah has sustained major damage to its infrastructure, as well as to government buildings and private homes. There are food, water, and electricity shortages throughout the city, as the security situation has severely crippled public services. In Ramadi, there is a slight improvement in conditions. Markets, banks, and schools have reopened, but the city is still without electricity since yesterday and fuel is unavailable. Some parts of the city are without water.
Do you think the antigovernment protest camp in Ramadi that was cleared by the police will return in some form in the coming months?
Muhammad: I expect the crisis to resume, especially if the Al-Qaeda gunmen remain inside Fallujah. The central and local governments will face two options: either leave them there, where they can grow and become stronger, or send in the army, in which case there will be negative repercussions. The next few days may witness major military operations.
Some are talking about organizing another peaceful civilian protest in Ramadi, while -- now that Maliki has seized the weapons of the protesters and removed those whom he described as armed groups from their number -- some are wondering whether the citizens of Anbar would be able to resume their protest and whether Maliki would allow them to do that. Everybody is talking about the political conflicts in the run-up to the parliamentary elections [on April 30], and local Anbar politicians are also exchanging claims and accusations.
RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel contributed to this interview