Iraqi security forces, militias or tribesmen may soon start an attack to retake Fallujah from al-Qaeda-linked militants after about 9,000 families fled the city, a government official said.
“I believe that a final combat will take place soon,” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of the provincial council of Anbar, said by phone from Ramadi. “Fallujah city is totally controlled by militias and this extends to Garma,” a town about 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.
The army will allow residents to flee the city before it starts an attack, an unidentified Iraqi official told Agence France-Presse. Special forces have started operations in the city and the army has surrounded Fallujah, AFP said. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday the U.S. won’t send troops to assist Iraq.
The attacking forces may include Iraqi troops, tribesmen, or militias, al-Issawi said. Forty civilians have died and 186 were wounded in the fighting, he said, citing figures from hospitals in Ramadi and Fallujah.
“More than 50 percent of Fallujah residents have fled to neighboring areas,” said 37-year-old Muhammed Al Badrani from Fallujah. “A large number of them have been sheltered in government buildings and schools. People are afraid of an armed conflict between the Iraqi forces” and Islamists, he said.
Fallujah, about 64 kilometers west of Baghdad in Anbar province, was the site of the hardest combat for U.S. troops since Vietnam and where the charred bodies of four Western contractors were hung from a bridge in 2004. The 2007 U.S. troop surge against Iraqi insurgents paved the way for America’s withdrawal.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry told a news conference in Jerusalem yesterday. “We’re going to do everything that is possible to help them” while stopping short of sending in U.S. troops, he said. The U.S. is in touch with tribal leaders in the region “who are showing great courage” against the militants, he said.
There is little appetite in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after President George W. Bush’s administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. President Barack Obama has listed ending direct U.S. military action in Iraq two years ago as one of his main accomplishments.
Al-Qaeda fighters have overrun the police headquarters in Fallujah and seized military equipment there provided by the U.S. Marines, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city, said in a phone interview Jan. 4. There’s no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is taking place on a highway linking the city to Baghdad, he said.
Fallujah’s tribal council says there are no Islamists in the region, and public services have been restored, Al Arabiya television reported yesterday.
The Sunni Muslim gunmen in Anbar, which borders Syria, belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, whose regional influence is growing through its involvement in the war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. has already stepped up arms supplies to help Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government suppress the group, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have complicated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s struggle to assert control over the oil-rich country following the U.S. pullout. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in 2013 was the deadliest in five years. Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of parliament resigning last week because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests in Anbar.
The U.S. is following the events in Iraq closely and is concerned by efforts of the “terrorist Al Qaida/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to assert its authority in Syria as well as Iraq,” State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement Jan. 4.
“We would note that a number of tribal leaders in Iraq have declared an open revolt against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Harf said. “We are working with the Iraqi government to support those tribes in every possible way.”
Iraq’s air force carried out two air strikes on Fallujah and the nearby city of Ramadi that killed 55 al-Qaeda fighters, General Ali Ghaidan, chief of the country’s land forces, told al-Sumaria News. Maliki vowed to remove all “terrorist groups” from Anbar, according to a statement on his official website.
Anti-government fighters captured the al-Mazraa military camp near Fallujah after heavy fighting, Al Jazeera television said.
Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge militants from Fallujah and Ramadi. There is a “kind of stability” in Ramadi, in Khalidiyah town, in Saqlawiyah and southeast of Fallujah in Ameriyat Al-Fallujah, where tribesmen and police are in control, according to Anbar provincial council’s al-Issawi.
In Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked group has eclipsed Western-backed rebels fighting Assad. While Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
“If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker, who served as ambassador from 2007 to 2009.