CAIRO — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday that his forces are willing to refrain from attacking the Anbar Province strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi, now in the hands of Islamic militants, so long as the local tribes fight them. He is urging the Islamist fighters to surrender. Iraqi media predicted Tuesday that the army was preparing to invade Fallujah.
Maliki urged Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province to “come to their senses and take the right side” in the conflict “by ceasing support for Islamic militants and terrorists.” He went on to warn them “not to help fuel the war waged by al-Qaida.”
Earlier, the prime minister signaled a delay for an attack on the Anbar province town of Fallujah, which is now in the hands of pro-al-Qaida Islamic militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Maliki said he would not attack “if tribal forces battled al-Qaida, themselves.”
In a weekly press briefing, Maliki also urged world powers to “help Iraq in its battle against this awful group.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Iraqi leader on Wednesday, the second time this week, about the power struggle in Anbar. According to the White House, Biden encouraged Maliki to continue to work with local, tribal and national leaders and reiterated that the United States will support and assist Iraq in its fight against international terrorism.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society reports that 13,000 families have fled Fallujah in the past few days.
A middle aged man told state TV that conditions inside the city are worsening.
He said social services are not functioning, and lack of necessities like cooking gas, gasoline, and the difficult situation in general is compelling residents to flee.
Al Arabiya television reported that the militants had shot down a combat helicopter Wednesday afternoon. The station added that Prime Minister Maliki's office told it the chopper had “suffered technical failure.”
Iraqi Brigadier General Rashid Fulleiha, who leads an army brigade in the Ramadi region, said government forces were not playing a key role in the fighting.
The Iraqi army is sitting back and watching tribal fighters attack the Islamic militants, he said.
According to Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches at the University of Paris, many factors have contributed to Iraq's current conflict, including the quick exit of U.S. forces in 2011, the incomplete training of Iraqi military forces and Prime Minister Maliki's unwillingness to share power with his Sunni rivals.
Abou Diab added however, that the prime minister wants Sunni tribal fighters to take the lead against the Islamic militants, who are also Sunni.
He said Maliki is letting this happen in order to avoid a Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation in the country, which would be very costly.
Sectarian violence has increased sharply in Iraq over the past year, and Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government has little support in the Fallujah area.
The United States is rushing air-to-ground missiles and surveillance drones to help Iraq's government against the al-Qaida linked militants.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Maliki on Monday to express U.S. support in the struggle against the extremists. But Secretary of State John Kerry says no U.S. troops will join the battle.