In a statement on state television, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite
Muslim whose government has little support in Sunni Falluja, called
on tribal leaders to get rid of fighters from the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who last week seized key towns in the
desert leading to the Syrian border.
"The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Falluja to
expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the
risk of armed clashes," read the statement.
Tribes from Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority control armed
militias in the region. Maliki promised the army would not attack
residential areas in Falluja as his forces prepare an offensive that
has echoes of U.S. assaults in 2004 on the city, some 40 km (25
miles) west of Baghdad's main airport.
Security officials said Maliki, who is also commander in chief of
the armed forces, had agreed to hold off an offensive for now at
least to give tribal leaders in Falluja more time to drive out the
Sunni Islamist militants on their own.
"No specific deadline was determined, but it will not be
open-ended," a special forces officer said of plans to attack.
"We are not prepared to wait too long. We're talking about a matter
of days only. More time means more strength for terrorists."
ISIL, has emerged in Syria's civil war as an affiliate of the
international al Qaeda network and powerful force among Sunni Muslim
rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
In Iraq, it has been tightening its grip on Anbar province, a thinly
populated, mainly Sunni region the size of Greece, and on the area's
main towns, strung along the Euphrates river. Its stated aim has
been to created a Sunni state straddling the border into Syria's
rebel-held desert provinces.
Two years after U.S. troops ended nine years of occupation, violence
in Iraq underlines how civil war between Syrian rebels backed by
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers on one side and Assad, an ally
of Shi'ite Iran, on the other has inflamed a broader regional
confrontation along sectarian lines.
The United States said on Sunday it would help Maliki fight al Qaeda
but would not sent troops back. An Iranian official offered similar
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in shift that reflects some
recent rapprochement with Tehran, suggested on Sunday that Iran
could play a role in forthcoming peace talks on Syria.
When Iraqi police broke up a Sunni protest last week in Ramadi, the
Anbar capital, deadly clashes fanned tensions across the province
that was the heart of the insurgency after the 2003 U.S. invasion
that brought Shi'ite majority rule.
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Al Qaeda's power grab has divided people in Anbar, where many accuse
Maliki of shutting Sunnis out of power and of being a pawn of Iran.
Some sympathize with and support the Islamist militants, or are too
fearful to move against them.
Others have vowed to help the government regain control.
"Now we are trying to make al Qaeda fighters leave the city," said
one tribal leader in Falluja, a city whose normal population is
about 300,000. "Falluja has seen enough blood and killing. We are
fed up with violence."
Known as the "City of Mosques" and a focus for Sunni faith and
identity in Iraq, Falluja was badly damaged in two offensives by
U.S. forces in 2004 against insurgents. Many people have fled the
town in recent days to escape fighting.
But the militants have also received help in Falluja from
disgruntled tribesmen who have joined forces with them.
Much of Iraq's U.S.-equipped army is drawn from the Shi'ite majority
and faces recalcitrance if not outright hostility in Anbar, which
covers about a third of the country's territory.
Across the border, al Qaeda fighters have also captured swathes of
Syria and are battling with fellow Islamist brigades as well as
ISIL was formed last year through a merger between al Qaeda's Iraqi
and Syrian affiliates and has claimed responsibility for attacks in
both countries. It includes foreign jihadists in its ranks and among
West of Ramadi on Monday, clashes broke out at dawn between
militants and special forces helped by tribal fighters.
"This combat has been going on with a well-trained and a highly
organized al Qaeda group," said the Iraqi special forces officer,
adding there were foreign fighters among the militants. "When we
defeat it, the balance of power in the whole of Anbar province will
(Writing by Isabel Coles; editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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