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Islamist Militants Hold On In Iraq's Fallujah, Ramadi

Armed Sunni fighters take up positions in Fallujah on January 5.
RAMADI, Iraq -- Islamist militants still control parts of the central Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi as security forces and Sunni tribesmen continue efforts to oust them.

RFE/RL correspondent Abdulkhaliq Muhammad said early morning battles in southern Ramadi raged for several hours as the security forces and their allies used rockets, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades against Sunni Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

The fighting in the restive Anbar Province is seen as the most serious security challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government since U.S. forces left the country in 2011.

At least 25 militants were reported killed in the fighting, which took place in the Al-Bakr, Al-Adil, Al-Thubbat, and Al-Andalus neighborhoods. Several others on both sides were injured.

Insurgents were still present in those areas after the fighting ended early on January 7.

Security forces said they found explosives and mines in other areas of Ramadi that had been brought back under government control in recent days.

One hospital, the Ramadi Teaching Hospital, said that since December 28, when fighting started, 21 bodies had been brought to the hospital along with 59 wounded, including women and children.

Further operations by the security forces against the militants are being prepared.

The army said earlier it had delayed an all-out attack on the center of the city of Fallujah -- held by militants -- in order to avoid civilian casualties, as the militants have taken refuge in residential areas.

But sporadic clashes between the militants and the security forces and Sunni tribesmen took place just outside the city, along the main highway to Baghdad -- which is just 65 kilometers from Fallujah -- and the highway that goes in the other direction toward Ramadi.

Fighting has also spread beyond Fallujah to Garma, 30 kilometers away, and to Saqlawiyah, a suburb of Fallujah.

Parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the provincial capital, have been held for one week by Sunni insurgents and fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The Iraqi Army has sent reinforcements, tanks, and other military vehicles to the area.

Maliki has called on residents of Fallujah to expel the militants to avoid an attack by the army.

With additional reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters