BAGHDAD // The Iraqi prime minister called on Monday for residents of the western city of Fallujah to expel “terrorists” to avoid an assault on the city by security forces.
“The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Fallujah to expel the terrorists from the city to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes,” Nouri Al Maliki said.
Iraqi security forces are preparing to retake the city, which has been held by Al Qaeda-affiliated militants and anti-government Sunni tribesmen for days.
Mr Al Maliki’s message came as dozens of families were fleeing Fallujah, 65 kilometres west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in fear of a major showdown.
Iraqi troops have surrounded the city, in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, after it was overrun by militants last week. Along with Fallujah, militants last week also took control of most parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Two local tribal leaders said meetings were being held with clerics and community leaders to find a way to persuade the militants to quit Fallujah and avert further bloodshed.
Mr Al Maliki – a Shiite – did not say how he expects Fallujah residents and pro-government tribesmen in the city to push the militants out. In his message, broadcast over state TV, he also urged Iraqi troops to avoid targeting Fallujah’s residential areas.
Discontent among Iraq’s Sunnis had been mounting for years, fanned by anger over their perceived exclusion from power in Baghdad and targeting by security forces.
But a decision by Mr Al Maliki to break up a year-old Sunni protest camp outside Ramadi on December 30 sparked unrest in Anbar’s main cities.
“The coming days will determine the fate of Iraq,” said Ihsan Al Shammari, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “The country stands at a crossroads – reconciliation as a democratic state, or splitting in total chaos and civil war, leading to the division” of the country.
On Monday, the Iranian army’s deputy chief-of-staff, Gen Mohammad Hejazi, said Iran was ready to help Iraq with military equipment and advisers, should Baghdad ask for it. Any Iranian help would exacerbate tensions as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government’s unfair policies against them.
Fallujah residents said clashes continued on Monday along the main motorway that links the capital, Baghdad, to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.
It was not entirely clear who controlled the city. The Al Qaeda fighters, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), were reported to still be in control of the centre of the city where they could be seen on the streets and around government buildings.
But on Monday, Ali Al Hammad a senior tribal sheikh, claimed that Isil fighters had left Fallujah. “There is no Isil in the city,” he said. “They all left.”
“The gunmen inside are from the sons of the tribes, and they are here to defend” the city, he said, without elaborating.
Fighters from a pro-government Sunni militia killed six militants in a firefight outside Fallujah on Monday, a police officer said.
In Ramadi, sporadic clashes were taking place in some parts and also outside the city on Monday, residents there said.
In Baghdad’s western suburb of Abu Ghraib, militants in speeding car attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding four, a police officer and a medical official said.
Violence in Iraq last year reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.
More than 250 people have been killed in the first five days of this month, exceeding the toll for the whole of January last year.
* With reporting from Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press