Residents of Fallujah began to return to their homes amid relative calm on Saturday despite fears of a possible assault by Iraqi government troops to wrest control of the city in western Anbar province from anti-government militants.
The temporary calm comes as the United Nations Security Council voiced support for government operations against Al Qaeda-linked fighters who, along with anti-government Sunni tribesmen, overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, last week.
Police and pro-government tribesmen had retaken most militant-held areas of Ramadi by Saturday, according to tribal leaders. But Fallujah remained outside government control, with the presence of the armed militants posing problems for residents who were making a cautious return.
Tunis Mohammed, a mother of four, returned to her house in the Hay il Askari neighbourhood on the outskirts of Fallujah only to find that tribal militants had taken it over.
“We tried to go home. But we found the rebelling tribes in our house. They were laying to rest in our bedroom, eating food from our kitchen.
“We told them ‘stay until you find a solution’. What could we tell them? Any aggravation could be lethal. One can only wait for God’s mercy. We just want calm and security. I am not with one camp or the other.”
Still, dozens of cars were seen crossing a bridge over the Euphrates river into Fallujah, as residents of the city and nearby villages returned home.
Phone lines worked only sporadically throughout the day due to heavy call volume, as families tried to call relatives and friends to see how they were coping with the fighting, residents said.
“After people slept outside in the rain and cold they just wanted to return to their houses. Most of them did not have financial means to rent a hotel,” said one Fallujah resident, who is hosting 28 people at her house in the Amreeyat neighbourhood.
“Fallujah is a poor city. Where are they going to get the money to pay for a hotel?”
The provincial council declared that public servants would return to work on Sunday. Many businesses in the city were already open on Saturday, though residents said the owners headed back out of the city after locking up for the night.
The calm is not expected to last long. Ahmed Abu Reesha, chief of the Sahwa (Awakening) forces who fought alongside United States troops against Al Qaeda in 2007 and is now a staunch ally of Iraq’s central government, said that pro-government tribes have almost completed security operations in Ramadi to cleanse the city from terrorism and the “next battle will be in Fallujah,” he told Baghdadia TV on Saturday.
Tribal leaders in Fallujah have said that militants from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and anti-government tribesmen are deployed on the outskirts of Fallujah.
A policeman stationed in Anbar said operations against militants in the two cities had been halted because of heavy overnight rain.
On Friday, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing “strong support for the continued efforts of the Iraqi government to help meet the security needs of the entire population of Iraq”.
Meanwhile the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, called on Iraqis to support the armed forces.
“It is up to us to stand on the side of our armed forces and our security services,” he said.
On Friday, tribesmen and police retook two areas of Ramadi from Al Qaeda-linked militants, said tribal military commander Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha.
“We fought Isil alongside our sons from the local police forces and returned them to their stations,” Mr Abu Risha said.
While a government attempt to retake Fallujah is expected soon, analysts have warned that an assault on the city will likely cause large numbers of civilians casualities.
“The Iraqi army does not have the sort of precision weapons, intelligence and fire discipline to assault Fallujah without causing civilian casualties,” said Jessica Lewis, a former US army intelligence officer who is now research director at the Institute for the Study of War.
Ms Lewis said that in an assault, “the Iraqi security forces will most likely level Fallujah by overusing artillery and stand-off weapons”.
While there have been varying reports of the numbers of casualities in the fighting, on Saturday, Khudier Shalal, the head of Anbar’s health directorate, said that 43 people were killed in the city of Ramadi and another 17 were killed in Fallujah since violence erupted following the December 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker on terrorism charges and the dismantling of an anti-government Sunni protect camp.
Mr Shalal said a total of 297 people were wounded in both cities. He was unable to provide a breakdown of how many of the dead were combatants and how many might have been civilians caught in the fighting. He said Iraqi military casualties were not included.
More than 11,000 families have been uprooted by the fighting, according to the UN, while concerns have arisen over shortages of food and fuel.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse
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Updated: January 11, 2014 04:00 AM