Iraq’s prime minister calls on tribal leaders in Anbar province to expel al-Qaeda linked fighters who have taken over key towns and cities in the region.
Nuri al-Maliki promised that the army, which spent the weekend battling militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), would hold off an offensive on residential parts of Fallujah in the province in order to give tribal leaders more time to drive militants out on their own.
“The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Fallujah to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes,” a statement on Iraqi television said.
The success of this tactic remains to be seen and will hinge on complicated relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region.
Prime Minister Maliki is part of Iraq’s Shia majority, but Anbar is a Sunni-dominated area and some in the region have sympathy for ISIL’s Sunni militants.
Some in the region accuse Prime Minister Maliki of keeping power from Sunni Muslims and of being a pawn for Iran. However, there are elements that have vowed to help the Iraqi government regain control of the region.
“Now we are trying to make al-Qaeda fighters leave the city,” said one tribal leader in Fallujah. “Fallujah has seen enough blood and killing. We are fed up with violence.”
Al-Qaeda militants in turn have vowed to punish tribesmen who side with the Iraqi government.
On Monday clashes between government forces supported by tribesmen and the ISIL militants flared up to the west of the provincial capital Ramadi (see video, below).
Anbar is an important region for ISIL, which borders Syria where it has been spreading its influence amongst the jihadist groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Last week ISIL captured positions in Ramadi and on Sunday was reported to have taken control of Fallujah.
The Iraqi government has been fighting the terror group with ground forces and airstrikes, and has released footage of offensives. Security officials have said the government will hold off on its offensive in Fallujah, but only for a “matter of days”.
On Sunday, the US said it would help the Iraqi government to fight al-Qaeda in the area, but ruled out sending troops back into the country.
Fallujah, known as “City of the Mosques”, is no stranger to violent clashes between al-Qaeda linked militants and the Iraqi government and was badly damaged by two US-led offensives in 2004 during the Iraq War.
It was the site of Operation Phantom Fury – a joint American, British and Iraqi operation to recapture the city. The offensive was reported to have led to the death of between 1,200 and 1,5000 militants, as well as around 100 US, Iraqi and British soldiers. The Red Cross estimated that around 800 civilians were killed in the fighting.
A previous US-led offensive that year, Operation Vigiliant Resolve, had failed to recapture the city. Around 600 civilians were killed in the operation as well as around 200 combatants.
Hugh Robertson, the British government’s minister for the Middle East, said the UK would stand alongside the Iraq in fighting terrorism.
He said: “I am extremely concerned about the violence in Anbar province, Western Iraq, and in particular about reports that al-Qaeda has taken control of parts of Fallujah.
“The British government will stand alongside the Iraqi government in combating this threat and other terrorist threats across the region.
“All efforts to tackle the threat of terrorism require support amongst the local community and an inclusive political process. It is also vital that civilians are protected and stability returns to Anbar province where the overwhelming majority of people want to live in a peaceful, prosperous and stable Iraq.”