BAGHDAD — Iraqi airstrikes pounded a town near Fallujah that was under the control of al-Qaida linked militants, and commandos swept in Wednesday to clear the area, senior military officials said. It was a rare victory for government forces that have struggled for nearly three weeks to regain control of the mainly Sunni area west of Baghdad.
North of the capital, a bomb tore through a funeral of an anti-al-Qaida Sunni militiaman, the deadliest in a series of attacks that killed at least 50 people nationwide.
Violence has risen sharply as extremist Islamic militants try to exploit growing anger among the Sunni minority about what they perceive as mistreatment and random arrests by the Shiite-led government.
Members of the al-Qaida linked group known as the State of Iraq and the Levant — emboldened by successes in the civil war raging next door in Syria — made a push to seize parts of the mainly Sunni Anbar province as violence erupted after the government arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges on Dec. 28, then dismantled an anti-government Sunni protest camp in the provincial Ramadi.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not ordered an all-out offensive against the extremists because of fears civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists.
The area was one of the bloodiest battlefields for U.S. forces during the war and al-Qaida’s resurgence poses a major challenge to the government and its forces two years after the Americans withdrew.