BAGHDAD — A government airstrike killed 25 al-Qaida-linked militants in a besieged province west of Baghdad amid fierce clashes Tuesday between Iraqi special forces and insurgents battling for control of the key cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi officials said.
Gains by al-Qaida in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar — once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops — pose the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011.
Iraqi forces and fighters from government-allied Sunni tribes have been battling militants to try to recapture the strategic territory, seized last week by an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The Iraqi air force struck an operations center for the militants on the outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, killing 25 fighters who were inside, said Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi military spokesman.
The government has vowed to rout the militants, calling on Fallujah residents Monday to expel them to avoid an all-out battle.
Iraq's Cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the situation in Anbar and called for the mobilization of all efforts "to support the army and security services in expelling terrorists," according to a government statement.
In Washington, the Army general who led U.S. forces through some of the deadliest years of the Iraq war said he opposes sending U.S. combat troops in response to the recent gains by militants in Anbar province. Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said that he was disappointed by the Iraqi government's loss of control of strategic territory but that the U.S. approach now should be to remain engaged diplomatically to help Iraqi government leaders get their political system back on track.