BAGHDAD - Sunni Muslim tribesmen backed by Iraqi troops fought al Qaeda-linked militants for control of Iraq's western province of Anbar on Friday in a critical test of strength for the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Dressed in black and waving al Qaeda flags, hundreds of Islamist insurgents using machine guns and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns battled tribesmen in the streets of the city of Ramadi on Friday, witnesses, security officials and tribal sources said.
The deployment of tribesmen against the militants was made possible by a deal tribal leaders struck with the Baghdad government late on Thursday to try to counter al Qaeda, which has seized government buildings and police stations in Ramadi and the province's other main city Falluja, tribal leaders told Reuters on Friday.
Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been tightening its grip in Anbar, near the Syrian border, in recent months in a bid to create an Islamic state across the Iraqi-Syrian borders.
"ISIL fighters want to keep their foothold that they have got in the past months but there is no way to let al Qaeda keeps any foothold in Anbar," said one tribal leader, who asked not to be named.
"The battle is fierce and not easy because they are hiding inside residential areas."