Missile strikes killed 25 people in the Iraqi city of Ramadi on Tuesday, a Defense Ministry spokesman said, as fighting intensified in the government’s attempt to wrest back parts of the country’s largest province from Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Government troops were also massing around the nearby city of Fallujah in hope of launching an assault there, but fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – who days ago seized control of both of the strategic cities in the western province of Anbar – have reported warned residents that they would be targeted if they support the government.
"It is not possible to attack (Fallujah) now" because of concerns about civilian casualties, news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted the spokesman, Staff Lt.-Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, as saying.
Still, the military was standing by and hoping to enlist the help of local tribal fighters in an all-out assault. One senior tribal leader, Sheikh Ali al-Hammad, told AFP on Monday that ISIL fighters had left Fallujah, and that it was now in the hands of tribesmen. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called on residents to expel ISIL fighters and stave off a military offensive.
Attacking the Sunni-majority city of Fallujah would be extremely sensitive politically, as it could inflame tensions between members of the country’s overall Sunni minority and the Shia-led government.
Former Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told Al Jazeera in an interview from Baghdad on Tuesday that he was confident the government could retake the city.
"Fallujah is encircled now by the Iraqi security forces and the army. There will be a real graveyard for al-Qaeda in Fallujah," he said. "This is not a Shia-versus-Sunni fight; it is a fight between a constitutionally elected government in Baghdad and al-Qaeda terrorists in Anbar province.”
Unrest in Anbar exploded following the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni politician sought charges of “terrorism,” followed by the government's dismantling of an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
The fighters seized parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi and all of Fallujah – the first time they have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the Sunni insurgency that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
On Monday night and early Tuesday, military troops and allied tribesmen tried and failed to retake part of Ramadi from fighters loyal to ISIL.
"Security forces and armed tribesmen tried last night to enter areas controlled by ISIL fighters in the south of the city," a police captain in Ramadi told AFP on Tuesday, adding that "security forces were not able to enter these areas and ISIL fighters are still in control."
Four civilians were killed and 14 wounded in the fighting, according to Ramadi Hospital's Dr. Ahmed Abdul Salam, who said he had no casualty figures for security forces or the fighters.
Al Jazeera and wire services