BAGHDAD — Islamic State militants have launched a deadly offensive against security forces in a key part of western Iraq, residents and tribal fighters said Tuesday, unleashing a wave of car bombs and seizing an area near one of the country’s largest dams.
The fresh attacks in Haditha district have set off some of the fiercest fighting in that area in months — and follow the stunning defeat of the Islamic State in the nearby city of Ramadi in December. An Iraqi army offensive backed by U.S. airstrikes forced the radical Islamists to retreat from Ramadi last month, marking a devastating blow for a group striving to expand its Islamic “caliphate.”
But this week, the militants turned their guns on Haditha, a strategic area about 90 miles northwest of Ramadi and home to Iraq’s second-largest hydroelectric dam. U.S. troops are also training Iraqi forces at the Ayn al-Asad military base just 20 miles away. The militants have had Haditha encircled for more than a year.
Haditha, in Anbar province, holds both symbolic and strategic significance. The district is one of the last government redoubts amid swaths of militant-held territory in the desert of western Iraq. In addition, its six-mile-long dam generates power for large tracts of the country, granting whoever controls it influence over much of Iraq’s electricity and water supplies.
Troops in Haditha said the three-day attacks by the Islamic State were unprecedented in the area. On Monday, the U.S.-led coalition launched two strikes on several Islamic State targets near Haditha — the first time warplanes have struck in the area since November, according to coalition statements.
“These are the most violent attacks we’ve ever seen in this area,” Sabah Ali, an Iraqi army captain with the 7th Division in a largely rural area known as Barwana, said of the Islamic State offensive.
Other tribal fighters said the Islamic State killed scores of people, including local police and civilians, in the village of Sakran, but the reports could not be confirmed.
The Islamic State holds territory across Syria and Iraq but has suffered a string of setbacks in recent months. Iraqi forces and pro-government militias have ousted the extreme Islamists from the Iraqi cities of Sinjar, Tikrit and now Ramadi. Security forces and analysts said the group’s focus on Haditha is meant to distract from its collapse in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar.
“They have been attacking us with car bombs constantly and from all sides,” Ali said of the attacks in Haditha. “They are trying to make up for what they lost in Ramadi.”
On Sunday, the radical Islamists began to step up attacks in Haditha, launching ambushes on checkpoints, arriving in villages atop armored convoys and engaging Iraqi troops in pitched battles on local farmland.
Early Tuesday morning, Islamic State fighters, bolstered by what locals said were reinforcements from outside Haditha, staged a surprise attack on Iraqi forces in Barwana. They seized two villages before Iraqi troops recaptured one of the hamlets later in the day.
Between two dozen and 60 Iraqi soldiers and others fighting on the side of the government have been killed in the attacks since Sunday, security forces and media reports said. The discrepancy in the reported death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.
In 2005, U.S. Marines committed what was widely seen as a massacre in Haditha after a roadside bomb killed one of their comrades while on patrol. For many Iraqis, the bloodshed became a bitter emblem of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
More recently, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a Syrian, urged attacks on Haditha and called on its tribesmen to repent and join the extreme Islamists.
The militants “have Haditha under siege and may enter it at any moment,” Adnani said in an audio recording released in June. He also threatened to wipe out a local tribe if its members continued to work with the Iraqi government.
Haditha’s residents have been cut off from the rest of Iraq for more than a year, surviving on aid that needs to be airlifted from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The World Food Program said last month that it had distributed food assistance to nearly 70,000 people in Haditha and the nearby town of Baghdadi, the first time the agency had dispensed aid to the area since April.
Abu Fahad al-Nimrawi, a tribesman opposed to the Islamic State, said he fled with his family as soon as word spread that the group’s fighters were arriving in Barwana on Tuesday morning. He took them to the Haditha city center, which is still largely protected from the violence.
“All of them were armored vehicles. It was in the morning,” said Nimrawi, who returned to Barwana to fight. “I took my family and we ran. The people who couldn’t leave, they were killed.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.