BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters attacked a government complex in the heart of an Iraqi provincial capital on Friday, local officials said, in an apparently coordinated effort to seize full control of the city.
Gunmen fired from rooftops at buildings in Ramadi housing the Anbar governorate offices and police headquarters, while security forces and tribal fighters tried to prevent the militants from advancing.
“Mosques are asking anyone who can carry weapons to confront the attackers,” provincial council member Hathal Fahdawi told Reuters.
Most of Ramadi and the surrounding Sunni Muslim province of Anbar is already held by Islamic State. The loss of the city would be a major setback for government forces, after they broke an Islamic State siege of Iraq’s biggest oil refinery this week.
Militants also launched coordinated attacks to the east and west of Ramadi, which is about 90 km (55 miles) west of Baghdad.
Islamic State seized much of northern Iraq from the Shi‘ite-led government in June, plunging Iraq into its worst security crisis since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
U.S.-led air strikes, launched in August, ended the Sunni Islamists’ offensive against Kurdish forces in the north but have not seriously challenged its control over much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab territory.
Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and Syria has raised concerns that its radical ideology will spread across the Middle East.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pledged to support Iraqi Kurdistan in its fight against the group on Friday and said the autonomous region’s security was vital to its own.
Ankara has been criticized for doing too little to end the siege by Islamic State fighters of the predominantly Kurdish border town of Kobani in Syria.
Turkey eventually allowed a small contingent of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to pass through its territory and reinforce fellow Kurds in Kobani, which Davutoglu said illustrated the “relationship of trust” between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Ankara.
Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani said he was prepared to send more peshmerga to Kobani, depending on the situation on the ground. Davutoglu said Ankara would take measures “when and where necessary”.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Istanbul later on Friday to discuss Turkey’s role in fighting IS, staunching the flow of foreign jihadists joining its ranks and coping with a refugee influx.
In Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, Iraqi security forces broke a months-long Islamic State siege of Baiji refinery on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil; Editing by Michael Georgy and Andrew Roche