BAGHDAD -- Iraqi airstrikes pounded a town near Fallujah that had been seized by 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 struggling 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 over what they perceive as mistreatment and random arrests by the Shiite-led government.
Members of the al-Qaida linked group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL -- 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 Dec. 28, then dismantled an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has held off ordering an all-out offensive against the extremists out of fear that civilian casualties could incite more Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with 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 U.S. troop withdrawal.
Wednesday's counterattack came a day after al-Qaida militants blew up an explosives-laden fuel tanker at an army checkpoint, killing three soldiers, near Saqlawiya, just north of Fallujah. Heavily armed gunmen then stormed into the town and surrounded the main police station, forcing all police to relinquish their arms and leave. Security forces then launched airstrikes against the gunmen, who fled, allowing Iraqi troops to enter the town later Wednesday.
The senior military officials described the events on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss them. It was a welcome success for Iraq's government, which has been heavily criticized for failing to protect the people. But the militants retain control of large swaths in Ramadi and Fallujah.
The unrest in Anbar and other mainly Sunni-dominated provinces has uprooted thousands of people from their homes as they flee fighting amid fears that the government may still launch an all-out offensive. International aid agencies appealed to the warring parties Wednesday to allow humanitarian aid to reach displaced families.
More than 11,000 families have fled their Fallujah and Ramadi homes either to nearby areas or outside Anbar, according to the U.N. Some families have ended up in abandoned buildings, schools and half-built houses, while others found refuge with relatives.
The World Health Organization said the province's few health facilities were no longer able to provide even lifesaving interventions, and Ramadi and Fallujah residents face acute health needs due to the conflict. The organization said it has dispatched 2 tons of medicine and supplies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it delivered food and essential supplies in the past few days to nearly 12,000 displaced people in Anbar and other mainly Sunni areas.
ICRC delegate Rashid Hassan, who took part in aid distribution in the northern province of Tikrit, said that in one instance 65 people, including many children, were crammed into a four-room house.
Meanwhile, Mr. Maliki warned that the fight against al-Qaida militants in Anbar would not be easy. "The battle will be long and will continue," he said in his weekly TV speech. He urged Anbar tribal allies to keep fighting on the government's side.
Tensions also are high elsewhere, raising fear that Iraq is returning to the sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The funeral bombing occurred in Buhriz, a town 35 miles north of Baghdad, killing 16 and wounding 26 inside a mourning tent, security and medical officials said. The funeral was for an anti-al-Qaida Sunni militiaman who died of natural causes. The Sunni militia, the Awakening Council, was formed by U.S. forces at the height of the insurgency. Its members are seen as traitors by the al-Qaida group and other militants.