Al-Qaeda militants have seized much of Fallujah, a key city in western Iraq, engaging Iraqi army forces in pitched battles there in a brazen challenge to Iraq's central government.
"The whole of Fallujah is taken," said Qasim Abed, a member of the provincial council in the region and the former governor of Anbar. "The situation is very bad."
Abed was reached Saturday by phone from his home in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a mostly Sunni region west of Baghdad. He said militants have occupied police stations and government building throughout Fallujah and are also controlling limited parts of Ramadi.
Reports from the region are sketchy, and it is unlikely militants can hold any ground they have seized, analysts say.
However, the battlefield successes do provide al-Qaeda with an important propaganda victory; the militants depend on an image of invincibility for recruitment and fundraising. During the Iraq War, al-Qaeda frequently disseminated video of militants waving flags in public places.