Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday urged residents and tribes of Fallujah to “expel” al-Qaeda militants from the western city to avoid an all-out battle — remarks that may signal an imminent military move to retake the former insurgent stronghold.
Al-Maliki’s message came as dozens of families were fleeing from Fallujah, 65km west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in fear of a major showdown.
Iraqi government troops have surrounded the city, which lies in the western Sunni-dominated Anbar Province and which was overrun by al-Qaeda fighters last week.
Al-Maliki did not say how he expects Fallujah residents and pro-government tribesmen to push the militants out.
In his message, broadcast over state TV, al-Maliki also urged Iraqi troops to avoid targeting Fallujah’s residential areas.
Along with Fallujah, al-Qaeda fighters last week also took control of most parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Iraqi troops have since been trying to dislodge militants from the group, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, from the two cities. On Sunday, fighting in Anbar killed at least 34 people, including 22 soldiers.
The recent gains by al-Qaeda in Iraq have been a blow to the country’s Shiite-led government, as sectarian violence has escalated since the US withdrawal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said that Washington was “very, very concerned” by the fighting, but would not send in US troops.
Yesterday, Iranian Army Deputy Chief of Staff General Mohammed Hejazi said Iran was also ready to help Iraq with military equipment and advisers, should Baghdad ask for it. Any Iranian help would exacerbate tensions, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government’s unfair policies against them.
Fallujah residents said clashes continued into early morning yesterday along the main highway that links Baghdad to Syria and Jordan.
Al-Qaeda fighters and their supporters are still controlling the center of the city, where they can be seen on the streets and around government buildings. Al-Qaeda black flags have been seen on government and police vehicles captured by the militants during the clashes.
In Ramadi, sporadic clashes were taking place in some parts of in and outside the city yesterday, residents there said. All residents in Anbar that talked to reporters spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.
Dozens of families were fleeing the two cities to nearby towns, crammed in cars loaded with their belongings.
Fighters from a pro-government Sunni militia killed six militants in a firefight outside Fallujah yesterday, a police officer said.
In Baghdad’s western suburb of Abu Ghraib, militants in speeding car attacked and Iraqi army checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding four, a police officer and a medical official said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to media.
On Sunday, at least 22 soldiers and 12 civilians were killed, along with an unknown number of militants, and 58 people were wounded during clashes between al-Qaeda fighters on one side and the army and its allied tribesmen on the other.