BAGHDAD – Iraq’s prime minister urged Fallujah residents on Monday to expel al-Qaida militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city, a sign that the government could be paving the way for an imminent military push in an attempt to rout hard-line Sunni insurgents challenging its territorial control over the western approaches to Baghdad.
The militants’ seizure of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi, once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops, has marked the most direct challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government since the departure of American forces two years ago. Both the U.S. and its longtime rival Iran view the escalating conflict with alarm, with neither wanting to see al-Qaida take firmer root inside Iraq. Washington has ruled out sending in American troops but recently delivered dozens of Hellfire missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces.
Tehran signaled Monday that it is willing to follow suit, saying it is ready to help Iraq battle al-Qaida “terrorists” by sending military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it. It is unclear whether Baghdad would take up the Iranian offer, made by Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, the Iranian Army deputy chief-of-staff, in comments to Iranian state media. He ruled out the sending of ground troops across the border.
Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq’s conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government’s unfair policies against them. Ahmed Ali, an Iraq researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, cautioned that a military assault on Fallujah would likely lead to civilian casualties and “possibly invoke other violent tribal responses.” It could also give al-Qaida a chance to launch attacks in other parts of the country given the concentration of forces in Anbar.
“It is important to recognize that (al-Qaida) cannot be decisively defeated in Anbar. The (Iraqi military) presence in Anbar is therefore likely to be long-term, which increases the opportunities for (al-Qaida) to exert control elsewhere in Iraq,” he wrote.
The Iraqi al-Qaida group, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also took control of most parts of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi last week.
Fallujah residents said clashes continued into Monday along the main highway that links Baghdad with neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Al-Qaida fighters and their supporters maintained control of the city center, spreading out over the streets and surrounding government buildings. Al-Qaida black flags have been seen on government and police vehicles captured by the militants during the clashes.