Iraq PM urges Falluja residents to expel militants

Al Maliki urges residents to drive out al Qaeda-linked insurgents

Mourners carry the coffin of a soldier, who was killed during clashes in Falluja, at his funeral in Najaf, 160 km  south of Baghdad today. Photograph: Reuters

Mourners carry the coffin of a soldier, who was killed during clashes in Falluja, at his funeral in Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad today. Photograph: Reuters

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 14:26

Iraq’s prime minister urged people in the besieged city of Falluja today to drive out al Qaeda-linked insurgents to pre-empt a military offensive that officials said could be launched within days.

In a statement on state television, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia 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 US assaults in 2004 on the city, some 40 km 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 US 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 Shia Iran, on the other has inflamed a broader regional confrontation along sectarian lines.

The United States said yesterday it would help Maliki fight al Qaeda but would not sent troops back. An Iranian official offered similar help.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in shift that reflects some recent rapprochement with Tehran, suggested yesterday that Iran could play a role in forthcoming peace talks on Syria.

Agencies