BAGHDAD — Iraq imposed a curfew in the western city of Ramadi on Friday amid fears that the Islamic State group was looking to advance on the strategically important city as attacks in Baghdad killed 21 people, officials said.
The curfew, which began before dawn, is part of an effort to limit movement in and out of the city as government forces prepared to combat pockets of resistance there, said Sabah Karhout, the chairman of the Anbar provincial council. Ramadi, the capital of the vast Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, is located 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad.
The Islamic State group has in recent weeks been making gains against the embattled Iraqi military around Ramadi despite ongoing, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on the militants.
Capturing Ramadi could have a huge ripple effect throughout Anbar, since controlling the provincial capital ultimately paralyzes the surrounding areas and further helps the militants secure yet another corridor between Syria and Iraq for the passage of fighters, munitions and field artillery.
The Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants seized the Anbar city of Fallujah, parts of Ramadi and large rural areas of Anbar early this year. The loss of Fallujah — where American troops engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the more than eight-year U.S.-led war in the country — foreshadowed the later loss of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul and much of the north. Mosul and the northern areas fell to the IS group in its blitz in June.
"Limited U.S. airstrikes in Anbar are not enough," said Liqaa Wardi, an Anbar provincial lawmaker. "We do not want to see airstrikes being wasted on minor targets, like a lone pickup truck moving in the desert."
Wardi said the people of Anbar need airstrikes targeting the IS group's "command centers, high-value targets and big gatherings by the terrorists."
Anbar has remained a high flashpoint. Earlier this week, Anbar provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Dulaimi was killed while traveling in a convoy north of Ramadi through an area cleared by Iraqi security forces a day earlier, Anbar councilman Faleh al-Issawi said. It was not immediately clear if others were killed or wounded in that attack.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with a delegation from Anbar on Friday, and urged the province's tribes to side with Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State militants. The government has repeatedly said that winning over the Sunni tribes is an essential part of the solution in Iraq.
Ramadi has not completely fallen to the IS group over the past months, in part because key Sunni tribes in the city have not allowed it to. The Jughaifi and al-Bunimer tribes have helped Iraqi special forces to protect the Haditha Dam in Anbar, and in the battleground town of Dhuluiyah, north of Baghdad, a single tribe, al-Jabbouri, has been the sole resistance to an Islamic State group takeover.
In his weekly Friday sermon, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said Iraqi tribes have always been fundamental to protecting Iraq and its people.
"We urge the Iraq faithful tribesmen, especially those in western Iraq who have been subjected to a fierce campaign by Daesh in recent months, to trust their abilities, and the ability of the Iraqi army to defeat those gangs," the reclusive al-Sistani said in a speech delivered by his spokesman Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalie. Daesh is the IS group's Arabic acronym.
Also Friday, Iraqi troops pressed on with operations in Salahuddin province to retake key areas from the Sunni militants between the city of Tikrit, which mostly remains in the control of the Sunni militant group, and the town of Beiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery.
Two Iraqi military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media, said the operation was receiving significant aerial support from U.S.-led coalition forces.
After nightfall Friday, a car bomb exploded near a cafe in Baghdad's eastern neighborhood of Baladiyat, killing 14 people and wounding 27, police officials said. Later, a car bomb blast at a commercial street in northern Baghdad killed seven people and wounded 13.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press reporter Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.