Negotiations between the interim Iraqi government and insurgents in control of the Sunni Muslim city of Fallouja appeared on the verge of collapse Friday, and U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces were completing preparations for an invasion widely expected to begin within days.
Meanwhile, U.S. artillery and aircraft continued pounding positions in the rebel city. One Marine died and five others were wounded Friday by indirect fire outside Fallouja.
After meeting with European leaders in Brussels, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the window of opportunity for a peaceful settlement to the Fallouja standoff was closing fast.
Allawi is expected to return to Iraq on Sunday and an offensive could begin anytime after that, Western officials said. Allawi would have to approve any attack.
The interim government and Fallouja leaders have been holding talks in an attempt to avert fighting, but without success, and preparations for an assault on the city have been underway for days. The Iraqi government and the U.S. hope to take control of the insurgent stronghold before national elections scheduled for January.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi Electoral Commission decided to allow expatriates to vote in the elections. The move may further alienate Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, who were in control during President Saddam Hussein’s rule but now feel sidelined in the political process. Most of Iraq’s 4 million exiles are Shiite Muslims and Kurds who fled the country during Hussein’s repressive regime.
The commission’s decision came after heavy lobbying by Shiite political parties that believe the expatriates could help them gain a solid majority in the new national assembly. It also would help the interim government leaders, many of whom were in exile until Hussein’s fall last year and have supporters among the expatriates.
“We have been exerting effort for months to solve this so that the Iraqis living outside could vote,” said Ridha Taqi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party. “There is not just a large number of people living outside, but high-quality people -- many of them are highly educated.”
The United Nations and the United States have opposed expatriate voting because of the potential for fraud and because it would further diminish the role of Sunnis in the next government. A senior Western diplomat said there were concerns the logistics could delay the vote.
Shiite Arabs constitute the majority of the population, followed by Sunni Arabs and then ethnic Kurds, most of whom are Sunnis. With expatriate Shiites voting, Sunnis would make up a still smaller share.
The electoral commission estimated that including expatriates in the balloting process would cost $90 million.However, it is unclear whether there is enough money to fund such a move, Taqi said. So far, there have been no public Sunni protests about expatriates being allowed to vote.
On Friday, U.S. forces blocked roads leading to Fallouja in preparation for the planned assault. Sheik Majid Nazzal Imam, speaking at Fallouja’s largest mosque, called on worshipers to unite and “participate in defending their town.”
The U.S. military dropped leaflets urging women and children to leave the city. Many have departed, but some may stay, in part because the insurgents have not permitted them to flee.
A Times special correspondent in Fallouja and special correspondent Suhail Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.