Iraqi Prime Minister
Although the statement issued by Maliki on his Shiite-led government's website appealed for troops to avoid striking civilian areas, it warned of the risks of a military onslaught and armed clash with the Sunni warriors of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
"The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Fallouja to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes," Reuters news agency quoted from the statement posted in Arabic.
Agence France-Presse reported that an unnamed government official had said civilians in Fallouja would be given time to leave the city before an offensive.
Civilians were reportedly fleeing in droves from Fallouja, a city of 300,000 that witnessed some of the worst violence of the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation of Iraq when Al Qaeda-backed militants sought to drive out the foreign forces.
Many of the foreign insurgents were captured and imprisoned since the U.S. exodus two years ago, but in July fighters with the ISIS staged brazen attacks on two prisons outside Baghdad, freeing more than 500 fighters, bolstering the militant Sunni forces in the hotbed of sectarian tension along the Euphrates River.
ISIS has gained sway in Fallouja and Ramadi, the nearby capital of Anbar province, as the fighters have sought to shield the local Sunni population from reprisals by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Iraqi security forces on Dec. 28 arrested a local Sunni lawmaker accused of terrorism and two days later cleared a Sunni protest camp, angering the Islamic sect that is a minority in the country but a majority in vast but sparsely populated Anbar.
Sectarian violence has plagued Anbar since April, when the government began cracking down on antigovernment protesters who alleged that Sunnis were being excluded from public offices and positions of power. Last year's death toll in Iraq from Sunni versus Shiite fighting was at least 8,868, the
U.S. Secretary of State
"This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," Kerry said at a news conference Sunday, upholding the Obama administration's objective of disengaging U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and resisting pressures to deploy them to other faraway conflicts.
A senior Iranian military official also offered noncombat assistance to Iraq's leadership in containing the "terrorist" threat in Anbar. Deputy chief of staff Gen. Mohammad Hejazi was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying Tehran was ready to provide "equipment and advice" if its allies in Baghdad asked for aid.
Although Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war for eight years in the 1980s, the two Shiite-ruled countries have developed closer ties since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011.
In Syria, the ISIS has gained control of key areas in the predominantly Sunni quest to depose President
The rising clout of the Al Qaeda faction has spurred massive infighting among the disparate rebels in recent weeks, with intense fighting reported Monday around Raqqah, the first Syrian city to fall completely to the rebels when they seized power 10 months ago.