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Iraqi army battles militants in deadly Anbar siege

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In this photo released by the Iraqi Army taken on March 20, 2014, Iraqi Security forces deploy after clashes with militants in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. This grueling urban warfare in the Ramadi suburb of al-Bakir, witnessed by an Associated Press reporter, is part of a deadly standoff pitting government forces and allied tribal militias against the Islamic State and allied rebels in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni minority. They hold part of the provincial capital Ramadi and nearly all of nearby city of Fallujah.(AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

In this photo released by the Iraqi Army taken on March 20, 2014, Iraqi Security forces deploy after clashes with militants in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. This grueling urban warfare in the Ramadi suburb of al-Bakir, witnessed by an Associated Press reporter, is part of a deadly standoff pitting government forces and allied tribal militias against the Islamic State and allied rebels in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni minority. They hold part of the provincial capital Ramadi and nearly all of nearby city of Fallujah.(AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

In this photo released by the Iraqi Army taken on March 20, 2014, Iraq’s acting Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi, center, walks with Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, center left, commander of the army’s ground forces and the commander of Anbar Operations, Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, center right, in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi military officials are warning that efforts to clear militants from Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi are proving much more difficult than they anticipated when the jihadists showed up three months ago. That realization, as they acknowledged during a recent tour of special forces operations, casts doubt on Iraq’s ability to hold elections in Fallujah next month. (AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

In this photo released by the Iraqi Army taken on March 20, 2014, Iraqi Security forces deploy in front of a damaged mosque after clashes with al-Qaida fighters in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi military officials are warning that efforts to clear militants from Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi are proving much more difficult than they anticipated when the jihadists showed up three months ago. That realization, as they acknowledged during a recent tour of special forces operations, casts doubt on Iraq’s ability to hold elections in Fallujah next month. (AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

In this photo released by the Iraqi Army taken on March 20, 2014, Iraqi Security forces prepare to attack al-Qaida positions in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi military officials are warning that efforts to clear militants from Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi are proving much more difficult than they anticipated when the jihadists showed up three months ago. That realization, as they acknowledged during a recent tour of special forces operations, casts doubt on Iraq’s ability to hold elections in Fallujah next month. (AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

In this photo taken on March 22, 2014, Iraq’s Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) ride in a helicopter on their way to take a vacation after two months of fighting with al-Qaida militants in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi military officials are warning that efforts to clear militants from Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi are proving much more difficult than they anticipated when the jihadists showed up three months ago. That realization, as they acknowledged during a recent tour of special forces operations, casts doubt on Iraq’s ability to hold elections in Fallujah next month. (AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra)

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RAMADI, Iraq (AP) — An Iraqi special forces patrol moves on foot past ruined homes on the outskirts of Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad where al-Qaida-inspired militants have held off the military for three months. As they head down an alleyway, shots from snipers ring out, followed by grenade blasts.

The troops take shelter behind walls and Humvees and return fire. No one is wounded and the operation continues.

A short while later the unit is clearing a house. They blow open the outer gate with a charge and a bomb expert goes inside. He pronounces the building safe to enter and calls on the rest of the soldiers to search it. Moments later a huge explosion collapses the building, shakes the ground and sends dust billowing in the air.

The house was booby-trapped. Four soldiers are killed and 10 are wounded.

“God curse Daesh,” one junior officer swore, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida spin-off group leading the militants. Soldiers nearby said they could hear the militants taunting them through loudspeakers: “Our slain are in Heaven, while your slain are in Hell.”

This grueling urban warfare in the Ramadi suburb of al-Bakir, witnessed by an Associated Press reporter on Thursday, is part of a deadly standoff pitting government forces and allied tribal militias against the Islamic State and allied militants in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The militants hold part of the provincial capital of Ramadi and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah.

It’s the biggest challenge yet to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and has dragged on far longer than officials had expected, costing the lives of scores of Iraqi soldiers. It is likely to disrupt voting in elections scheduled for the end of April, shaking the credibility of the government.

Anbar operations commander Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih says U.S.-trained special forces are taking the lead in fighting since the regular Iraqi army lacks experience for this kind of warfare. He says more than 100 Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 400 wounded in three months of fighting, while about 250 militants have been killed.

He estimates the number of militants at around 1,000 fighters in Fallujah alone, half of

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