RAMADI, Iraq — An Iraqi special forces patrol moves on foot past ruined homes on the outskirts of Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad where al-Qaida-inspired militants have held off the military for three months. As they head down an alleyway, shots from snipers ring out, followed by grenade blasts.
The troops take shelter behind walls and Humvees and return fire. No one is wounded and the operation continues.
A short while later the unit is clearing a house. They blow open the outer gate with a charge and a bomb expert goes inside. He pronounces the building safe to enter and calls on the rest of the soldiers to search it. Moments later a huge explosion collapses the building, shakes the ground and sends dust billowing in the air.
The house was booby-trapped. Four soldiers are killed and 10 are wounded.
"God curse Daesh," one junior officer swore, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida spin-off group leading the militants. Soldiers nearby said they could hear the militants taunting them through loudspeakers: "Our slain are in Heaven, while your slain are in Hell."
This grueling urban warfare in the Ramadi suburb of al-Bakir, witnessed by an Associated Press reporter on Thursday, is part of a deadly standoff pitting government forces and allied tribal militias against the Islamic State and allied militants in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq's Sunni minority. The militants hold part of the provincial capital of Ramadi and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah.
It's the biggest challenge yet to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and has dragged on far longer than officials had expected, costing the lives of scores of Iraqi soldiers. It is likely to disrupt voting in elections scheduled for the end of April, shaking the credibility of the government.