The Islamic State group claimed Sunday to hold the entire Iraqi city of Ramadi after security forces fled following a series of suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi officials disagreed with each other over whether the city had fallen, though the country's prime minister ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar province.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into the Sunni-dominated region, ignoring worries their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed apparently over fears the extremists could seize the province.
The retreat of some forces recalled the collapse of Iraqi police and military forces last summer, when the Islamic State group's initial blitz into Iraq saw it capture about a third of the country.
Police and army officials said four nearly simultaneous bombings targeted police officers defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi, killing 10 and wounding 15. Among the dead was Col. Muthana al-Jabri, the chief of the Malaab police station, they said.
Later on, police said three suicide bombers drove their explosive-laden cars into the gate of the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for the province, killing five soldiers and wounding 12.
Fierce clashes erupted between security forces and Islamic State militants following the attacks. Islamic State militants later seized Malaab after government forces withdrew, with the militants saying they now held the military headquarters.
A police officer who was in Malaab said retreating forces left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles. He said some two dozen police officers also went missing during the fighting.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to talk to journalists.
On a militant website frequented by Islamic State members, a message from the group claimed its fighters held the entire city of Ramadi. It said militants held the 8th Brigade army base, as well as tanks and missile launchers left behind by fleeing soldiers. The message, while it could not be independently verified by The Associated Press, was similar to others released by the group and was spread online by known supporters of the extremists.
One official in Anbar province, councilman Athal al-Fahdawi, said the city had fallen to the militants. Another, councilman Mahmoud Khalaf, denied it when reached by the AP. Federal authorities had no immediate comment.
The new setback came only a day after Baghdad's decision to send reinforcements to help its battered forces in Ramadi.
Al-Abadi's comments were carried on state television, which did not elaborate on the situation in Ramadi or elsewhere in Anbar province. Iraqi warplanes also launched airstrikes on Islamic State positions inside Ramadi on Sunday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said, without elaborating.
Later, the military issued a statement also calling on its forces not to abandon Anbar province.
"Victory will be in the side of Iraq because Iraq is defending its freedom and dignity," the military said. It did not offer any details about the ongoing fighting.
Last week, the militants swept through Ramadi, seizing the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city. It marked a major setback for the Iraqi government's efforts to drive the militants out of areas they seized last year. Previous estimates suggested the Islamic State group held at least 65 percent of the vast Anbar province.
Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made gains against the Islamic State group, including capturing the northern city of Tikrit. But progress has been slow in Anbar, a Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi.
U.S. troops were able to improve security in the province starting in 2006 when powerful tribes and former militants turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State group, and allied with the Americans.
But the so-called Sunni Awakening movement waned in the years after U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011, with the fighters complaining of neglect and distrust from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The U.S.-led coalition said Sunday it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi in the last 24 hours, as well as three in Fallujah.
"It is a fluid and contested battlefield," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. "We are supporting (the Iraqis) with air power."