Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- 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.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked residents of Fallujah, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Baghdad in Anbar province, to kick “terrorists” out of their neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by Iraqi forces, state-run Iraqiya Television reported today. Special forces have started operations in the city and the army has surrounded it, Agence France-Presse said. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday the U.S. won’t send troops to help Iraq.
The attacking forces may include Iraqi troops, tribesmen or militias, al-Issawi said. The air force of the Shiite-led Iraqi government struck positions held by the Sunni Muslim militants, members of al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in Anbar late yesterday, according to a statement on the Defense Ministry’s website.
“More than 50 percent of Fallujah residents have fled to neighboring areas,” Muhammed Al Badrani, 37, said by phone from the city. “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.
Forty civilians have died and 186 were wounded in the fighting, al-Issawi said yesterday, citing figures from hospitals in Ramadi and Fallujah.
Fallujah was the site of the toughest combat for U.S. troops since Vietnam, and the charred bodies of four Western contractors were hung from a bridge there in 2004. The 2007 U.S. troop surge against militants in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq 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.
Shiite-led Iran is ready to provide consultation or equipment aid to the Iraqi government, Fars News agency reported, citing General Mohammad Hejazi, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces for logistics and industrial research. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war that ended in 1988.
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.
The regional influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant 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.
“Many people thought that al-Qaeda was on its way out a few years ago,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Al-Qaeda has staying power and their so-called franchising approach has been successful.”
The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have complicated 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.”
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.
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