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Expel al-Qaeda from Fallujah: N­ouri

07 January, 2014

BAGHDAD: Iraq's prime minister urged residents and tribes of Fallujah to "expel" al-Qaeda militants from the city to avoid an all-out battle remarks that may signal an imminent military move to retake the former insurgent stronghold.

Nouri al-Maliki's message came as dozens of families fled Fallujah, 65-km west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in fear of a major showdown. Iraqi government troops have surrounded the city, which was overrun by al-Qaeda fighters last week. Al-Maliki did not say how he expects Fallujah residents and pro-government tribesmen to push the militants out.

In his message, broadcast over state TV, al-Maliki also urged Iraqi troops to avoid targeting residential areas in the city, which lies in the western Anbar province. Members of the al-Qaeda linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which also has gained influence battling government forces in neighbouring Syria, also took control of most parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi last week.

Iraqi troops have been trying to dislodge the militants from the two cities.

On Sunday, fighting between government forces and militants as well as allied tribesmen in Anbar killed at least 34 people, including 22 soldiers, 10 civilians and an unknown number of militants.

The recent gains by al-Qaeda have been a blow to Iraq's government, as sectarian violence has escalated since the US withdrawal.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Washington was "very, very concerned" by the fighting but would not send in American troops. The Iranian army's deputy chief-of-staff, Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, said on Monday that Iran was also ready to help Iraq with military equipment and advisers, should Baghdad ask for it.

Any Iranian help would exacerbate tensions as Iraqis accuse Tehran of backing their government's unfair policies against them.

Fallujah residents said clashes continued into early on Monday along the main highway that links the capital, Baghdad, to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

Al-Qaeda fighters and their supporters maintained control of the city center, flooding the streets and surrounding government buildings.

Al-Qaeda black flags have been seen on government and police vehicles captured by the militants during the clashes. Sporadic clashes erupted in some parts of Ramadi on Monday, residents there said.

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