Iraq PM calls on Fallujah tribes to expel Al-Qaeda-linked fighters

Nouri al-Maliki told people to push fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant out of Fallujah

A burned army truck looks over a hill as a gunman guards during clashes with Iraqi security forces on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, Sunday.

Iraq's prime minister has urged residents and tribes in Anbar province to "expel" Al-Qaeda-linked fighters to avoid an all-out battle — remarks that may signal an imminent military move to retake the former insurgent stronghold.

In a message broadcast over state TV on Monday, Nouri al-Maliki told Iraqis to push fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) out of Fallujah, and urged the Iraqi army to avoid targeting the city's residential areas in the fighting.

Tension remains high in Anbar province amid reports of sporadic clashes taking place in some parts in and outside the city of Ramadi, including the killing of a number of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in a firefight with a pro-government group outside Fallujah.

Fallujah residents said clashes continued into early morning on Monday along the main highway that links the capital, Baghdad, to neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Fighters from ISIL and their supporters are still controlling the center of the city where they can be seen on the streets and around government buildings.

Al-Qaeda black flags have been seen on government and police vehicles captured by the fighters.

The army has besieged Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and has launched air strikes on the city.

'No security'

Ahmed Abu Risha, a senior Sunni tribal leader and head of the Awakening Council in Anbar province, told Al Jazeera that an agreement has been reached between tribal groups and the Iraqi government to withdraw the army from Ramadi and Fallujah.

"The ISIL rebels were trying to bring the battle to the cities of Anbar and Fallujah, because there's no security there and they know they will be thoroughly defeated in the desert," Abu Risha said.

Al Jazeera's Iraq correspondent Imran Khan said: "Sheikh Abu Ahmed Risha is going to lead his fighters inside (Fallujah) with backup from the Iraqi army. There are rival tribes inside Fallujah who are sympathetic to ISIL. Not only will he have to fight with the ISIL fighters, but he'll also have to take on rival tribes. It's going to be a very tough fight for both him and the Iraqi army."

The ISIL fighters seized the moment after Maliki ordered security forces to break up a yearlong sit-in near Ramadi. There, Sunnis had gathered to protest their exclusion from the political process by the Shia-led central government, but Maliki claimed the protest became a camp for Al-Qaeda.

Once the sit-in was broken up last week, fighting erupted between the security forces and local fighters — among them, elements of ISIL, which have long battled for dominance in Ramadi and other Anbar cities.

The takeover of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi is the first time that tribal fighters have exercised such open control in major Iraqi cities since the height of the bloody insurgency that followed the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Dozens of families fled the violence on Monday, heading toward the city of Karbala.

Mohammed al-Khuzayee, deputy general secretary of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said three truckloads of food and sanitary items were being shipped to them.

Foreign support

The White House said on Monday that it was accelerating its delivery of military equipment to Iraq to help the government put down ISIL’s insurgency.

"We're working closely with the Iraqis to develop a holistic strategy to isolate the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, and we have seen some early successes in Ramadi," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in a briefing. 

"This situation remains fluid, and it's too early to tell or make conclusions about it. But we're accelerating our foreign military sales deliveries," Carney said. 

As part of that effort, the U.S. recently supplied Iraqi forces with Hellfire missiles, and is looking to provide additional shipments as early as this spring, Carney said, as well as 10 ScanEagle surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in upcoming weeks and 48 Raven surveillance UAVs later this year.

The United States also delivered three Bell IA-407 helicopters to Iraq in December, bringing total helicopter sales and deliveries to the country to 30, Carney said. 

Nevertheless, the U.S. has ruled out placing American boots on the ground.

Iran on Monday said that it is also ready to support Iraqi forces in their battle with Al-Qaeda-linked "terrorists" by sending military equipment and advisers if Baghdad requests it.

Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq's conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shia-led government's unfair policies against them.

According to the United Nations, Iraq had the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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