Iraqis Seek Political Solution to Avert Army Attack on Fallujah
TEHRAN (Tasnim) - The prospect of an imminent Iraqi army assault on Fallujah receded as negotiators tried to work out a deal under which al-Qaeda militants who seized the city 10 days ago would give way to tribal leaders.
Military and local officials said Friday the tanks, artillery and troops around the city 70 km (44 miles) west of Baghdad would not attack while efforts to end the standoff peacefully were under way.
Militants of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also fighting in neighboring Syria, took control of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi on January 1 with the help of sympathetic armed tribesmen.
At least 60 civilians, militants and tribal fighters have been killed in the two cities since the trouble erupted, 43 of them in Ramadi and 17 in Fallujah, health officials in Anbar province said. They had no word on military casualties.
The militants' incursion was a major challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, which is battling a growing ISIL presence in Anbar.
The vast western desert region was previously the heart of the insurgency after the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and brought about Shiite majority rule.
A senior US official said Washington was encouraging the government to take a "patient, deliberate and restrained" approach to the Fallujah crisis. "I don't anticipate a move into the city by the armed forces," he told reporters on Thursday.
The UN Security Council condemned the ISIL attacks in Iraq and urged the Iraqi tribes, local leaders and security forces in Anbar province to expand and strengthen their cooperation to combat violence and terrorism.
"The Security Council recognizes that Iraqi security forces, local police and tribes in Anbar province are showing great courage as they fight to defeat ISIL in their cities," the 15-member council said in a statement on Friday.
Thousands of Fallujah residents have fled in fear of a punishing military assault, but for now the search for a political solution is in the ascendant, the officials said.
Mosques in Fallujah opened for Friday prayers for the first time in more than a year. Previously they had taken place at an anti-government protest camp that dispersed last week.
Witnesses said markets also partially reopened and children jogged around in the rain carrying colorful umbrellas.
"The decision was made not to attack the city and to create space for local leaders to defuse the crisis," said Falih al-Essawi, a member of Anbar's provincial council who is involved in the negotiations with community leaders in Fallujah.
"The central government totally agreed to this and they fully backed us," Essawi told Reuters by telephone.