BAGHDAD, June 22 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces on Sunday clashed with Sunni militant groups in several local provinces, but insurgents made significant progress in the country's western province of Anbar, a security source said.
In Anbar province, a Sunni heartland, a provincial police source said that the security forces deserted three cities in the province after Sunni gunmen had earlier captured a fourth strategic city near the border with Syria.
Sunni militants seized the city of Rawa, some 275 km northwest of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, and the nearby city of Aanah, occupying the cities' police stations and government offices without resistance late on Saturday, the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
Later on Saturday night, Sunni gunmen, including those who are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaida offshoot, took control of the city of Rutba, some 370 km west of Baghdad, the source said.
The insurgent groups also seized Albu Haiyat area and the small town of Jubba near the city of Hadithah, some 200 km northwest of Baghdad, as they prepare to attack Hadithah the source said.
The seizure of Rawah and Anah raises fears that the militants may target a key dam in Hadithah located on the Euphrates river, which accommodates a hydraulic power station with a capacity of 1, 000 megawatts. Its destruction would take a toll on Iraq's electrical supply and could even trigger major flooding.
More than 2,000 reinforcement troops were sent to Hadithah to protect its dam.
Earlier, the militants also captured the border city of al-Qaim, after fierce clashes with the troops, according to the source.
On Friday, the militants took control of the border crossing point with Syria near the city and also seized several posts from border guards after clashing with security forces.
Conflicting reports have emerged concerning the strategic border crossing point of al-Walid with Syria.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said that the Iraqi security forces still control another border crossing point of al-Walid with Syria, as well as Tribil crossing point with Jordan, which located some 120 km west of Rutba. But a provincial security source reported that the troops deserted the al-Walid crossing point and is now under the control of the militants.
The al-Walid crossing point is the last of Iraq's border crossings with Syria that is under central government control, the other border point, Rabia, is now policed by Kurdish security forces after Iraqi troops abandoned it on June 15.
If the reports of militants overtaking the border crossing are confirmed, it may bring ISIL militants one step closer to fulfilling their goal of establishing an Islamic "caliphate" state in Iraq and Syria. The group, which has been active in the Syria conflict, has been fighting to capture border towns and cities from both countries to achieve their goal.
The embattled central government's Lieutenant General Qassim Atta and security spokesman of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said at a news conference that the security forces have made a " tactical" withdrawal from the western cities, telling reporters it was "a tactical measure for the purpose of redeployment."
In Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, Atta also said that the security forces repelled several attacks by the militant groups from three directions in the city of Tal Afar, some 70 km west of the provincial capital city of Mosul.
"Our forces repelled the attacks in Tal Afar while the helicopters and other aircraft carried out around clock airstrikes on the militants' posts," Atta said.
Earlier this year, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama sent Baghdad a huge stock of weaponry to root out the Islamic militant group, hastily delivering Apache attack helicopters, Hellfire missiles and F-16 fighters, but the arms assistance has not translated into victory on the ground.
Tal Afar, the largest city in the Sunni-majority province of Nineveh after the provincial capital Mosul, is the last foothold of the Iraqi Shiite-led government in Nineveh province, excluding the parts that are under the Kurdish security forces.
The battles raging in the mixed city, which consists mainly of Shiite and Sunni Turkomans, in addition to the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities, has pushed most of its 250,000 population to flee their homes, mainly to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and the city of Sinjar.
The Sunni-majority province of Nineveh and its capital Mosul have long been a stronghold for insurgent groups, including al- Qaida militants, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Salahudin province, the security forces, with air support, fought back several overnight attacks by militants against the oil refinery of Baiji, Atta said, adding "the refinery is in full control by the security forces."
Earlier, insurgent groups overran the city of Baiji as well as large parts of the Sunni-predominant province of Salahudin, including its capital Tikrit.
Meanwhile, Atta said that the security forces with air support carried out sporadic attacks in Salahudin province, including the city of Dour near Tikrit and Abu Ajil area, killing 42 suspected militants and destroying 13 vehicles.
In Iraq's eastern province of Diyala, battles continued in and around the city of Udheim, as the troops carried out several attacks on the Sunni militants posts in east of the city, Atta said without giving casualties.
Diyala province, which stretches from eastern edges of Baghdad to the borders with Iran, has long been the stronghold of al-Qaida militant groups as well as a hotbed of insurgency and sectarian violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq has undergone drastic security erosion since June 10, when bloody clashes broke out between security forces and hundreds of Sunni militants who took control of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories after Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.