BAGHDAD/RAMADI, Iraq: Iraqi troops will delay assaulting the militant-held city of Fallujah, an officer said Tuesday, citing fear of civilian casualties, as fighting and missile strikes in Ramadi killed 29 people.
Parts of Ramadi – the capital of Anbar province, west of Baghdad – and all of Fallujah have been outside government control since last week.
It is the first time militants have had such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“It is not possible to assault [Fallujah] now” over concerns about civilian casualties, Defense Ministry spokesman Staff Lt. Gen. Mohammad al-Askari told AFP.
Security officials and tribal leaders said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to hold off an offensive to give people time to push the militants out.
“Tribal leaders appealed to the prime minister to halt the attack and stop shelling Fallujah,” an Iraqi special forces officer told Reuters. “We’ve done our part of the deal. Now they should do theirs. If not, a quick offensive is coming.”
Attacking the Sunni-majority city would be extremely politically sensitive, as it would inflame already high tensions between the Sunni minority and Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
It would also be a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of U.S. troops.
Monday night, security forces and allied tribesmen sought to retake south Ramadi from fighters loyal to Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), but the assault failed.
“Security forces and armed tribesmen tried last night to enter areas controlled by ISIS fighters in the south of the city,” a police captain told AFP.
Four civilians were killed and 14 wounded, said Ramadi hospital’s Dr. Ahmad Abdel-Salam.
Many in Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, the main group in Anbar, share ISIS’ enmity toward Maliki’s Shiite-led government. But some tribal leaders in the province have been trying to steer a middle course between the two.
Late Monday, tribal leaders from Fallujah met and decided to set up a new local administration to run the city and appointed a new mayor and police chief. One Sunni tribal leader in the city told Reuters: “We are sending a clear message to the government – ‘go ahead and fight Al-Qaeda outside Fallujah and we ourselves will deal with the issue inside the city.’”
“If the army attacks Fallujah to fight a handful of Al-Qaeda elements, that will have dire consequences by triggering endless violence,” he added, warning that bloodshed could spread to other Sunni districts of Iraq. Clashes continued in Ramadi Tuesday and 25 militants were killed, Defense Ministry spokesperson Askari said.
Three loud explosions were heard outside Fallujah early Tuesday, a witness said, as the army deployed reinforcements.
“Today, the army sent new reinforcements, including tanks and vehicles, to an area about 15 kilometers east of Fallujah,” a police captain told AFP.
As violence in Anbar entered its second week, the Pentagon said Washington would accelerate delivery of 100 Hellfire missiles, which were due to be sent to Iraq in the next few months. Colonel Steven Warren said an additional 10 ScanEagle surveillance drones would also be supplied.
Fighting erupted near Ramadi on Dec. 30, when security forces cleared a year-old protest camp where Sunnis had rallied against what they see as the marginalization and targeting of their community by the government.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city after security forces withdrew.
Iraq also suffered violence outside Anbar Tuesday. A suicide bomber detonating an explosives-rigged truck near a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing five people and wounding 66, and gunmen shot dead seven women and five men at a brothel in Baghdad.