Baghdad, June 22 :
Iraqi security forces Sunday clashed with Sunni militant groups in several provinces, while insurgents made significant progress in the country’s western province of Anbar, a security source said.
In Anbar, a Sunni heartland, the security forces deserted three cities after Sunni gunmen captured a fourth strategic city near the border with Syria, Xinhua reported.
Later Saturday night, Sunni gunmen, including those who are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an Al Qaeda offshoot, took control of the city of Rutba, 370 km west of Baghdad, the source said.
The seizure of Rawah and Rutba raised fears that the militants may target a key dam in Hadithah located on the Euphrates river, which accommodates a hydraulic power station with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts.
The dam’s destruction would take a toll on Iraq’s electrical supply and could even trigger major flooding.
More than 2,000 reinforcements were sent to Hadithah to protect its dam.
On Friday, the militants took control of the border crossing point with Syria near the city and also seized several posts from border guards.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said the Iraqi security forces still control another border crossing point of al-Walid with Syria, as well as Tribil crossing point with Jordan, which located some 120 km west of Rutba.
The al-Walid crossing point is the last of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria that is under the Iraqi government’s control, with the other border point, Rabia, is now policed by Kurdish security forces after Iraqi troops abandoned it June 15.
rime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s military spokesman, Lt.Gen. Qassim Atta, in a news conference, said the security forces have made a “tactical” withdrawal from the western cities, terming it as “a tactical measure for the purpose of redeployment”.
In Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, Atta also said that the security forces repelled several attacks by the militant groups from three directions in the city of Tal Afar, some 70 km west of the provincial capital of Mosul.
“Our forces repelled the attacks in Tal Afar while the helicopters and other aircraft carried out around clock airstrikes on the militants’ posts,” Xinhua cited Atta as saying.
The Sunni-majority province of Nineveh has long been a stronghold for insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda militants, since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Salahudin province, the security forces, with air support, fought back several overnight attacks by militants against the oil refinery of Baiji, Atta said, adding the refinery was in full control of the security forces.
Earlier, insurgent groups overran the city of Baiji as well as large parts of the Sunni-predominant province of Salahudin, including its capital Tikrit.
Meanwhile, Atta said that the security forces with air support carried out sporadic attacks in Salahudin province, including the city of Dour near Tikrit and Abu Ajil area, killing 42 suspected militants and destroying 13 vehicles.
Iraq has undergone drastic security erosion since June 10, when bloody clashes broke out between security forces and hundreds of Sunni militants who took control of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories after Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.