Iraqi tribes say army will enter Fallujah “over our dead bodies”
RAMADI, IRAQ // Iraqi troops will delay an offensive against the militant-held city of Fallujah for fear of causing civilian casualties, an official said on Tuesday, while fighting and missile strikes in nearby Ramadi killed 29 people.
Parts of Ramadi — the capital of Anbar province, west of Baghdad — and all of Fallujah were seized by Al Qaeda-linked militants last week.
It is the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 United States-led invasion.
“It is not possible to assault (Fallujah) now” due to concerns about civilian casualties, said the defence ministry spokesman, Lieutenant General Mohammed Al Askari.
Security officials and tribal leaders have said that the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki agreed to hold off an offensive to give people in Fallujah time to push the militants out. But it is not clear how long they have before troops storm the town.
Fighters, some of them foreign, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), an Al Qaeda affiliate also active across the border in Syria, overran police stations in Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar province last week.
Many in Iraq’s once dominant Sunni Muslim minority, the main group in Anbar, share Isil’s dislike of Mr Al Maliki’s Shiite-led government. But tribal leaders in the province are trying to steer a path between the army and the Al Qaeda fighters.
“If the army attacks Fallujah to fight a handful of Al Qaeda elements, that will have dire consequences by triggering endless violence,” one Sunni tribal leader in Fallujah said, adding that it could spread to other Sunni districts.
“We are sending a clear message to the government,” he said. “Go ahead and fight Al Qaeda outside Fallujah and we ourselves will deal with the issue inside the city.”
Attacking the Sunni-majority city would be extremely politically sensitive, as it would inflame already-high tensions between members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite-led government.
Sectarian tensions throughout the region are already running high. Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni Muslim power in the Gulf, is supporting rebels fighting the regime of president Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Shiite-ruled Iran, an ally of Mr Al Maliki’s government, is the Syrian leader’s chief backer.
An offensive to retake Fallujah would also be a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of American forces.
“They’ll only enter Fallujah over our dead bodies,” said Khamis Al Issawi, who said he’s part of a 150-strong brigade in the city 64-kilometres west of Baghdad.
“We are ready and prepared to fight Maliki forces if they decide to begin their offensive on the city.”
Mr Al Issawi said most of the region’s tribes are fighting in his brigade, without saying whether it had any connections with Al Qaeda. Government officials say Sunni tribesmen are also fighting on the army’s side.
In a bid to win support, Iraq’s cabinet said families of tribesmen who die fighting “terrorists” will receive government benefits, while those injured in combat will receive free medical treatment.
Yet, in Garma, a city north-east of Fallujah, Sheikh Rafei Mishen Al Jumaily, head of the Jumelat tribe said thousands of his fighters evicted the military from the town after fierce fighting. The Al Jumaily are one of the biggest tribes in Anbar.
“The Iraqi army began entering the cities and humiliating the people instead of protecting them,” he said. “The government is accusing us of terrorism to justify the war against us — that’s why we decided to defend our people.” He said his fighters have captured about 100 government soldiers.
Both Mr Al Issawi and Mr Al Jumaily said they were fighting against Iranian influence over Iraq.
The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have complicated Mr Al Maliki’s struggle to assert control over the country following the withdrawal of US troops. The premier also faces political unrest, with 44 members of parliament resigning last week because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests in Anbar, an event that was a catalyst for the current violence.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi army deployed tanks and artillery around Fallujah as fighting broke out about 20 kilometres west of the city, following the capture of an army officer and four soldiers in the area a day earlier.
The attacks continued as a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden lorry into a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing two people and wounding 55. A roadside bomb also struck an army patrol south-east of Baghdad, killing one soldier and wounding another. Another bomb hit a patrol of pro-government, Sunni militiamen in Baghdad’s south-eastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, killing one fighter and wounding four.
Also on Tuesday, Iraqi government forces carried out missile strikes against militants in Ramadi, killing 25.
Both Ramadi and Fallujah were insurgent strongholds in the years after 2003, and Fallujah was the target of two major assaults in which US forces experienced some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.
* Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Bloomberg
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Updated: January 7, 2014 04:00 AM