BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A senior Islamic State figure known as "the blind judge" has made an appearance in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, asserting the militant group's dominion over it as security forces and Shi'ite militias prepare a counter-attack.
Residents of Ramadi said a blind man with one hand and his head shrouded had delivered a speech in the Anbar provincial capital's main mosque after evening prayers on Wednesday.
They did not know who he was but recognized him to be a senior figure because he was flanked by a large number of guards and said his accent indicated he was Iraqi.
Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashimi, who closely tracks the hardline insurgents, identified the man as Ali Attiya al-Jubouri, also known as Abu Asim, or "the blind judge of the Islamic State".
"This cleric who appeared in Ramadi yesterday is very famous," Hashimi said. "He is the second highest religious authority after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the fifth man in the organization of Daesh."
Daesh is an Arabic name for Islamic State.
Hashimi said the appearance of the blind judge was designed to win over residents of Ramadi, many of whom sided with the government and fended off the militants until they were finally overcome on May 17.
Scrambling to reverse the setback, Iraq's government has deployed Shi'ite militias to Anbar despite concerns about a potential sectarian backlash from the province's predominantly Sunni population.
Iraqi forces thwarted an attack by Islamic State militants on their frontline position east of Ramadi on Thursday.
Police and pro-government tribal fighters on the frontline in Husaiba al-Sharqiya, around 7 km (4 miles) east of Ramadi, said the militants had tried to cut them off from behind by crossing the Euphrates River at dawn.
"They started the attack under cover of mortars and sniper shots, but we managed to abort it," said Sunni tribal leader Amir al-Fahdawi. "We have enough troops deployed and a couple of tanks positioned near the bridge".
South of Ramadi, Shi'ite militia fighters and police pressed an advance in the al-Tash area late on Wednesday but came under attack from an Islamic State suicide bomber driving an armored vehicle packed with explosives.
Police sources said seven militiamen had been killed and the forces, mainly Shi'ite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi, were forced to retreat.
Iraq announced an operation this week aimed at driving the militants out of their remaining strongholds in Salahuddin province as well as Anbar, most of which is under Islamic State control.
Shi'ite militias and Iraqi police were making steady advances on Thursday against Islamic State militants southwest of the city of Samarra in Salahuddin province.
"The main goal of the operations is to cut all supply routes used by Daesh stretching between Samarra and Anbar," said Khalid al-Khazraji, a local Hashid leader and chairman of security committee on Salahuddin provincial council. "Cleaning these areas will help further isolate Daesh terrorists inside Anbar and undermine their combatant abilities".
Khazraji said at least 90 militants had been killed since the start of the operation on Tuesday. Army and hospital sources said at least 27 pro-government force had been killed, most of them from the Hashid Shaabi.
(Reporting by Baghdad Bureau; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)