Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat/Reuters—Iraqi government forces battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are preparing to launch air strikes on the city of Fallujah, a local government official said.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Adhal Al-Fahdawi, an official from the Anbar provincial council, said that “a major offensive” was now planned to take back the city from ISIS militants.
“Fallujah remains under the control of ISIS, especially the city center,” he said. “But the city’s outskirts are under the control of the tribes.”
Violence erupted in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah last week when militants, including members of Al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS, attacked police stations in the cities, expelling Iraqi army troops and police.
The capture of positions in Ramadi and large parts of Fallujah was the first time in years that Sunni insurgents had taken ground in the province’s major cities, and held their positions for days.
Government officials in the western Sunni-dominated Anbar province—where Ramadi and Fallujah are located— met with tribal leaders to urge them to help repel the militants who have taken over parts of the strategic Iraqi cities on the Euphrates River.
“The reason the tribes are being used is to expel ISIS forces,” said Fahdawi. He added that this was especially warranted since “Fallujah has now been declared an independent Islamic state by ISIS.”
Commenting on rumors that members of the tribes were expelling the police and security forces from the city, he said: “This is totally untrue, the tribal members are not expelling them from the city, nor are they burning government buildings. How can this be true when they are fighting alongside government forces to get rid of ISIS?”
Fahdawi said that some residents of Fallujah were now fleeing the city in anticipation of the strikes, and because of heavy fighting on the outskirts of the city, but that residents were staying put in Ramadi, where “80 to 90 percent” of the city was now back under government control.
He added, however, that there were “still some pockets where ISIS snipers are still present.”
On Sunday, 30 militants were killed during “highly accurate and specific” air strikes on the city, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
In a press release, the ministry said that a further 25 militants were killed in joint ground operations carried out by government forces and the local tribesmen.
The presence of ISIS—which is also battling President Bashar Al-Assad’s government in Syria—has been steadily growing in Iraq’s Anbar province in recent months, as the organization has sought to create an Islamic state that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Tension has been running high across Anbar, which borders Syria and was the heart of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency after the 2003 US-led invasion, with residents staging protests accusing Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government and the security forces of sectarian discrimination.
Last week Iraqi police broke up one of these protests, and arrested a prominent Sunni MP on Monday. Deadly clashes followed both incidents.
In a news conference on Saturday, Yasin Majid, an MP from the State of Law Coalition (SLC) loyal to Maliki, asked whether there was coordination between the country’s Sunni-dominated Mutahidoun Coalition and ISIS.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mazhar Gabany, an MP from the Mutahidoun Coalition, said: “Our stance with respect to these strikes, the armed forces, and the local tribesmen all involved in fighting terrorism, is absolutely clear and unequivocal, and there is no room for doubt here.”
But he said the Coalition felt there were “substantial and complex problems” in the Anbar province that could not “be solved using military means alone.”
“People went out a year ago to protest for very legitimate demands, and therefore there should be no conflating the two events. In fact we must differentiate between the two, in order to truly fight this kind of terrorism without any political ramifications, from which no one will benefit.”
“The situation in Anbar is especially worrying,” he continued. “It must be handled with extreme care, considering that 95 percent of the residents, or more, are of a particular make-up.”