Two Iraqi cities that were strongholds of Sunni insurgents during the U.S. war in the country are battlegrounds once more after al-Qaida militants largely took them over, fending off government forces that have been besieging them for days.

The overrunning of the cities this week by al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch in the Sunni heartland of western Anbar provinces is a blow to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik. His government has been struggling to contain discontent among the Sunni minority over Shiite political domination that has flared into increased violence for the past year.

On Friday, al-Qaida gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah, one of the cities they swept into on Wednesday. A militant commander appeared among worshippers holding Friday prayers in the main city street, proclaiming that his fighters were there to defend Sunnis from the government, one resident said.

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