BAGHDAD -- A government airstrike killed 25 al-Qaida-linked militants in a besieged province west of Baghdad amid fierce clashes Tuesday between Iraqi special forces and insurgents battling for control of the key cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi officials said.
The al-Qaida gains in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar -- once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops -- pose the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011.
Iraqi forces and fighters from government-allied Sunni tribes have been battling militants to try to recapture the strategic territory, seized last week by an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said the Iraqi air force struck an ISIL operations center on the outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, killing 25 fighters who were holed up inside. He gave no details about how the death toll was confirmed, other than to cite intelligence reports. It was not possible to independently verify the military's claim.
The airstrike came after clashes erupted about 12 miles west of Fallujah following the capture of an army officer and four soldiers in the area a day earlier, provincial spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi said in an interview. There was no immediate word on casualties for those clashes.
Mr. Maliki's government has vowed to rout the militants, calling on Fallujah residents Monday to expel the al-Qaida fighters to avoid an all-out battle. Iraq's Cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the situation in Anbar and called for mobilization of all efforts "to support the army and security services in expelling terrorists," according to a government statement. Military operations would continue, the Cabinet statement added, until Iraq is "cleansed" of terrorism.
In Washington, the Army general who led U.S. forces through some of the deadliest years of the Iraq war said he opposes sending U.S. combat troops in response to the recent gains by militants in Anbar province. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said he was disappointed by the Iraqi government's loss of control of strategic territory, but the U.S. approach now should be to remain engaged diplomatically to help Iraqi government leaders get their political system back on track.
Residents of Fallujah have been streaming out of the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, fearing an impending assault, according to witnesses. A medical official in Fallujah said two civilians were killed and five wounded, including two children, when they were caught Tuesday in an exchange of fire between militants and Iraqi army troops south of the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to release information.
The immediate trigger for the unrest was the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges, followed by the government's dismantling of a months-old anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
Sectarian tensions in Iraq have been rising for much longer, as Sunni complaints grew that the government was targeting the minority community unfairly by discrimination and what they alleged were random arrests on terrorism charges. It was a U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida that led to a decline in the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and the current unrest has raised fears that the country was again being pushed to the brink of civil war.
Violence spiked after the government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp last April. Militants have also targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of coordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.