Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is calling on residents of the mostly Sunni-populated Anbar Province town of Fallujah to expel pro- al-Qaida militants who appear to control their city. Witnesses say Iraqi government forces outside the city are bombarding areas inside, while warning an offensive could start soon.
In a statement read on state television, Maliki urged Iraqis to “help the government and army to fight terrorists.” He went on to urge residents to “expel” the Islamic militants who control the city.
A resident of Fallujah indicated he fled because foodstuffs and basic necessities were running short. Scores of residents have been leaving the city as conditions deteriorate. Some reports say Islamic militants are now blocking exits from Fallujah.
Falah al Aissawi, a member of the Anbar provincial council, told al-Arabiya TV that “no Iraqi police or army troops remain inside [Fallujah].” Witnesses reported that Iraqi helicopters and field artillery were bombing positions in at least two areas of the city.
Al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents who have been fighting in neighboring Syria took over parts of Iraq's Anbar Province last week.
The situation is complicated by rising violence between Iraq's minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites during the past year. Shi'ite Maliki's government has little support in the province.
The situation in Anbar began deteriorating after government forces stormed a Sunni sit-in protest camp last week in Ramadi. The arrest of a prominent Sunni member of parliament further exacerbated tensions. Sunni tribal leaders continue to demand his release.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Hassan al Shammari accused Maliki and his supporters of allowing Islamic militants to escape from prison last summer in order to create chaos in the country. There was no immediate response to the claim from the government.
In contrast, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told al Sharqiya TV, that the “situation inside [neighboring] Syria is behind the worsening violence in Iraq.” He urged Iraqis to “stick together and talk with one another” to put an end to the conflict.
Iranian media reported that Tehran's Deputy Military Commander Mohammed Hijazi had offered “weapons and other aid” to the the Iraqi government, if it asks for help. But he said Iran would “not supply ground troops."