The Iraqi army intensified its shelling of Falluja on Sunday in preparation for a ground assault to regain control over the city, which has been under the control of militants for a month.
Mostly Sunni Muslim anti-government fighters, among them insurgents linked to al-Qaida, overran Falluja in the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar on Jan. 1, against a backdrop of deteriorating security across Iraq.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shi'ite-led government many in the Sunni minority accuse of discrimination, had held off an all-out offensive to give local tribesmen a chance to expel the militants themselves.
But security officials told Reuters on Saturday that a decision had been made to enter Falluja on Sunday.
“Orders have been issued to start shelling the city with artillery and planes to detect the potential abilities of militants inside Falluja and try to find a gap to get into the city,” a top security official told Reuters on Sunday.
“Troops and tribal fighters are stationed in their positions just 15 minutes outside Falluja.”
The official said militants had planted roadside bombs along the main roads into the city, and the army would use different routes to enter.
“We have finished all our preparations and are waiting for the final say, which must come from Maliki himself,” said a senior military commander.
Earlier on Sunday, security officials said Maliki had received phone calls from the ambassadors of several countries in the region urging him not to storm the city.