Security forces and allied tribal fighters mounted major offensives on Saturday against militants in the conflict-hit cities of Ramadi and Fallujah as attacks elsewhere in Iraq killed eight people.
The massive assaults, involving soldiers, police and pro-government armed tribesmen, are part of efforts to wrest back control of areas that have been in the hands of militants, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for weeks, sparking fears the ongoing stand-off could impact elections scheduled for April 30.
They come after Iraq's deadliest month in nearly six years, with more than 1,000 people killed in January, as it grapples with a surge in bloodshed that has sparked fears of a return to the all-out conflict that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007.
Security forces and their allies assaulted the militant-held neighbourhoods of Malaab, Dhubat, and Street 60 in Ramadi, killing 35 anti-government fighters and seizing large amounts of weaponry, according to a police officer and tribal militia commander Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha.
The clashes were among the heaviest in several weeks, an AFP journalist in Ramadi said, adding that all mobile phone and Internet connections had been cut.
Abu Risha, the nephew of a powerful tribal sheikh, has backed anti-government protesters and was implicated in the killing of five soldiers near Ramadi last year, but in ISIL he shares a common enemy with the government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, aerial bombardment and artillery fire on a neighbourhood in northern Fallujah, a rare major operation in the city itself, has killed 15 militants, the defence ministry announced Saturday, without saying when it happened.
The army has largely stayed out of Fallujah, just a short drive from Baghdad, fearing any major incursion could lead to a bloody and protracted conflict with massive civilian casualties and property damage.
American battles in the city, a bastion of militants following the 2003 US-led invasion, were among their bloodiest since the Vietnam War.
'Preparing a major assault'
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But an official in the provincial security command centre told AFP that security forces were preparing a major assault on Fallujah in a bid to retake the city.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate.
Fallujah is in Anbar province, a mostly Sunni desert region west of Baghdad that shares a border with Syria.
Security forces are locked in a deadly stand-off in Anbar with militants, including those affiliated with ISIL.
For weeks, anti-government forces have held parts of Ramadi and all of nearby Fallujah, the first time they have exercised such open control in cities since the peak of violence that followed the invasion nearly 11 years ago.
ISIL has been involved in the fighting, as have other militant groups and anti-government elements, while the police and army have recruited their own tribal allies.
The stand-off has prompted more than 140,000 people to flee their homes, the UN refugee agency said, describing it as the worst displacement in Iraq since the peak of the 2006-2008 sectarian conflict.
Diplomats and analysts say the authorities must do more to tackle grievances cited by Sunnis, who claim the government and security forces unfairly target their community, but officials have trumpeted security operations.
"Security operations need to go hand-in-hand with inclusive policies, based on the respect for human rights, the rule of law, social development," UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement on Saturday.
Elsewhere, a bombing at a wholesale vegetable market in south Baghdad killed two people, and car bombs in two different neighbourhoods killed two more.
Another blast targeting an army patrol just north of the capital left a soldier dead, and attacks in the northern cities of Tuz Khurmatu and Samarra killed three more people.
Violence has surged markedly higher in recent months, with January's death toll the highest for a month since April 2008, according to government data.
The UN released its own January toll Saturday of 733 dead, but said that did not include Anbar.