Iraqi troops are preparing for a ground assault on Fallujah, as prime minister Nouri al-Maliki urged residents and tribes to “expel” al-Qaeda militants from the Sunni-dominated city to avoid an all-out battle.
His message came as families fled Fallujah, 40 miles west of capital Baghdad, in fear of a major showdown. Government troops have surrounded the city, which was overrun by al-Qaeda fighters last week.
Mr Maliki did not say how he expected Fallujah residents and pro-government tribesmen to push the militants out.
In his message, broadcast on state TV, he urged Iraqi troops to avoid targeting residential areas of the city, which lies in the western Anbar province.
Members of al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams, which has also gained influence battling government forces in neighbouring Syria, took control of most parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi last week.
Iraqi troops have been trying to dislodge the militants from the two cities. On Sunday, fighting between government forces and militants, as well as allied tribesmen in Anbar, killed 22 soldiers, ten civilians and an unknown number of militants.
The recent gains by al-Qaeda have been a blow to Iraq’s Shia-led government, as sectarian violence has escalated since the withdrawal of American troops.
US secretary of state John Kerry said Washington was “very, very concerned” by the fighting but would not send in American troops.
In a sign of the battle for influence with Washington, the Iranian army’s deputy chief-of-staff, General Mohammad Hejazi, yesterday said his country was also ready to help Iraq with military equipment and advisers, should Baghdad ask for it.
But any Iranian help would exacerbate tensions, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shia-led government’s unfair policies against them.
Fallujah residents said clashes continued yesterday along the main highway that links Baghdad to Syria and Jordan. Al-Qaeda fighters and their supporters maintained control of the city centre, flooding the streets and surrounding government buildings. Al-Qaeda’s black flags have been seen on government and police vehicles captured by the militants during the clashes.
Sporadic clashes erupted in some parts of Ramadi yesterday, according to residents there.
Dozens of families fled the two cities to nearby towns, crammed into cars loaded with their belongings.
Lieutenant General Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Iraqi army’s Anbar military command, told state TV that “two to three days” were needed to push the militants out of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.
Tensions in Anbar have run high since 28 December, when Iraqi security forces arrested a Sunni MP who had been sought on terrorism charges. Two days later, the government dismantled a months-old, anti-government Sunni protest camp, sparking clashes with militants.
Sectarian violence in Iraq spiked after the government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp last April. Militants have also targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of co-ordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.
According to the United Nations, Iraq had the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed began to subside in 2007.
It said the violence was responsible for the deaths of 8,868 people last year.