Iraqi PM urges Falluja to expel al Qaeda militants

Reuters reports: Iraq’s prime minister has urged people in the besieged city of Falluja to drive out al-Qaida-linked insurgents to pre-empt a military offensive that officials said could be launched within days.

In a statement on state television, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim whose government has little support in Sunni-dominated Falluja, called on tribal leaders to get rid of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) who last week seized key towns in the desert leading to the Syrian border.

“The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Falluja to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes,” read the statement.

Tribes from Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority now control armed militias in the region. Maliki promised the army would not attack residential areas in Falluja as his forces prepare an offensive that has echoes of US assaults in 2004 on the city, 25 miles west of Baghdad’s main airport.

Security officials said that Maliki, who is also commander in chief of the armed forces, agreed to hold off an offensive to give tribal leaders in Falluja more time to drive out the Sunni Islamist militants on their own.

“No specific deadline was determined, but it will not be open-ended,” a special forces officer said of plans to attack. “We are not prepared to wait too long. We’re talking about a matter of days only. More time means more strength for the terrorists.”

Marina Ottaway writes: The attacks on the main police station in Fallujah on Wednesday, followed by the takeover of other police stations there and Ramadi on the following day, are part of the escalation in the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict that has long plagued Iraq and reached its worst point in 2006-2007.

But the violence is also part of the broader malaise affecting all Iraqi provinces, including some of the major Shia ones, as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki seeks to tighten his own political control and power, and in the process to impose a highly centralised system of control, which most provinces are beginning to resent.

At present, at least one-third of Iraqi provinces are seeking to transform themselves into regions enjoying the same degree of autonomy Kurdistan has already achieved.

The confrontation in Anbar was precipitated by Mr Maliki’s decision on 30 December to dismantle with force a protest camp that had existed in Ramadi for over a year.

The camp had been set up to challenge what many Sunnis see as their systematic marginalisation by Baghdad, and the repression of prominent Sunni politicians.

The protest camp was not an al-Qaeda operation, but Mr Maliki’s move triggered a strong response by the militants of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). [Continue reading…]

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