by Martin Chulov
The Iraqi military were on Sunday night trying to dislodge al-Qaida militants in the city of Ramadi, near the Syrian border, using air strikes which left at least 34 people dead.
The action came as al-Qaida fighters were also reported to have taken control of Falluja and underlined the fragility of Syria and Iraq's shared border, which is becoming increasingly exposed as standoffs with Islamist militants in both countries appear to be reaching a defining phase.
Iraqi officials say reinforcements of al-Qaida-linked militants are crossing from Syria into Iraq. At the same time, members of the group are fending off fierce attacks across northern Syria.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, on a visit to the Middle East, said he was extremely worried by developments in Iraq, which the US military left in late 2010 after occupying it for nearly eight years.
"We are very, very concerned about the efforts of al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant – which is affiliated with al-Qaida – who are trying to assert their authority not just in Iraq, but in Syria," Kerry said.
"These are the most dangerous players in that region. Their barbarism against the civilians in Ramadi and Falluja and against Iraqi security forces is on display for everyone in the world to see." The UK also said it was "deeply concerned".
As the Syrian war has intensified over the past two years, militants have also been crossing from Iraq to Syria – where they have gradually asserted a hardline Islamic presence in the east and north, splintering an insurrection that started as a bid to replace Bashar al-Assad as president.
The jihadist push has instead helped transform the revolution in the north into a starkly sectarian conflict, which the renewed insurgency in Iraq both feeds off and amplifies.
The militant advance in Iraq's Anbar province, where Falluja and the nearby city of Ramadi are situated, and in other areas surrounding Baghdad over the past year has also re-intensified sectarian divisions remaining from a vicious civil war in 2005-07.
But now al-Qaida's hold on parts of northern Syria is facing its first sustained threat, while its latest insurgency in Anbar is also under challenge from tribal leaders and the Iraqi army.
The Iraqi army said it was moving advanced weapons to Falluja, which the US had delivered over the past month following a request from the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
It has as yet not been prepared to use them as it tries to broker alliances with the region's powerful tribes, some of whom are backing the militants, while others are supporting the army.
The standoff shows no sign of abating, with Iraqi officials preparing for an attack on Falluja, where militants twice fought a withering assault from the Americans in 2004 in the largest battles Washington had fought since Vietnam.
A spokesman for Maliki said: "We need the help of the Americans. We only need logistical support and them to supply us with weapons. We wanted to intervene before but we didn't have the weapons to do that.
"It is hard to control the borders as we know what the situation in Syria is like and there are other countries who are supporting al-Qaida with weapons and logistics."
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, said he was hoping for the Falluja standoff to be resolved without the Iraqi army getting involved.
"How can an army fight their own people?" he said. "If the army intervene, this won't be forgotten by all Iraqis: Sunni and Shia.
"The borders are open between Syria and Iraq because of the financial and administrative corruption which helps co-ordinate things between al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria.
"Iraqis won't accept slipping [back] into civil war but if the Iraqi politicians won't … deal with all ethnicities in the right way, then everything is possible.
"The Americans brought lots of money and weapons which helped to create different militias. The leaders in Iraq are driven by hatred and the love of revenge."
Another Iraqi lawmaker, Izzat Shabander, said: "The situation right now is against al-Qaida in Anbar and the proof is that they are moving from Syria to help al-Qaida in Iraq with the fighting.
"The borders are open because of the current situation in Syria and because of the fragile security in the neighbouring provinces in Iraq like Anbar and Mosul."
In Syria, meanwhile, clashes between the opposition and Islamist fighters that started on Friday spread across the north, where the Islamic State of Iraq (Isis) group has led much of the fighting against the Assad regime in recent months while imposing a fundamentalist rule on the towns and villages it occupies.
Clashes spread from Idlib in the far north-west, through to the Aleppo countryside, with Friday's sporadic uprising having given way to co-ordinated attacks in numerous villages.
Syrian opposition members told the Guardian that Isis had used car bombs against them as they advanced into the AnOceander area near Idlib, which is a heartland of the group.
Heavy fighting was also reported at Azaz and Tal-Abbayad, near border crossings into Turkey.
The exiled Syrian opposition leadership in Istanbul released a statement praising the revolt. "The Syrian people made up their minds," it said.
"They expressed their rejection of the anti-revolution group. The Free Syria Army (FSA) echoed the Syrian people's choice. It has launched a number of operations to defend the Syrian people and deter the alien group.
"Clashes with Isis are inevitable if the Syrian people are able to achieve the goals of the revolution: toppling the Assad regime and establishing a democratic, civil and pluralistic state."
The opposition's influence over the fighting remains limited. The FSA once loosely answered to it, but has since been subsumed by power struggles that have produced reconfigured fighting units.http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/05/irai-military-dislodge-al-qaida-militants