Iraqi forces lost more ground in crisis-hit Anbar province on Wednesday as Sunni gunmen, including those linked to Al-Qaeda, overran two key areas when police abandoned their posts, officials said.
The losses mark a second day of setbacks for Baghdad as it seeks to retake territory on the capital's doorstep from militants, who hold all of the former insurgent bastion of Fallujah and parts of the nearby Anbar provincial capital Ramadi.
The latest unrest comes amid a deadly, weeks-long crisis in the province, a mostly desert region in western Iraq bordering conflict-ravaged Syria, ahead of national parliamentary polls on April 30.
Diplomats, including UN chief Ban Ki-moon, have urged Baghdad to pursue political reconciliation to resolve the standoff and a protracted surge in nationwide violence, but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ruled out dialogue with militants.
On Wednesday, police forces abandoned their posts in two key areas of Anbar, giving up territory to heavily-armed militants who forced the men to leave their weapons behind, officials and witnesses said.
"We gave ourselves up, and we gave up our arms to Daash," one policemen, who did not want to be named, told AFP from the town of Saqlawiyah, referring to the commonly-used Arabic name for the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"They have very heavy arms, which are much stronger than what we have. Our police station was not very well protected, and they surrounded us. Even when we called for support, nobody came. Now, some of us have gone home, others have gone to other police stations."
Militants overran the police station in Saqlawiyah, a town just west of Fallujah, and took control of the entire area after using mosque loudspeakers to urge policemen to abandon their posts and leave their weapons behind.
They also wrested back control of the station and surrounding neighbourhood of Malaab, a major district in Ramadi, after security forces trumpeted their successes in the area just days earlier.
Clashes, meanwhile, erupted periodically in Ramadi and on the outskirts of Fallujah from Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning, security and medical officials said, with two children killed, and 13 other civilians wounded in the violence, according to two doctors.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
The crisis marks the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.