Zee Media Bureau
Baghdad: As Iraqi military prepared for a major assault on the city of Fallujah to dislodge the al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized parts of Anbar province, triggering an exodus of the residents, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged the people to drive the militants away to avoid the dangerous repercussions of the bombardment in the city.
In a televised address, Maliki directed "the people of Fallujah and its tribes to expel the terrorists" so "their areas are not subjected to the danger of armed clashes."
Maliki added that he had instructed the forces not to hit residential areas while attacking on the Qaeda dens in the city.
The government`s airstrikes come after the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq`s Anbar province have been wrested by the al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants of the group Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
The capture of the cities by the militants highlights the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq six years after the the militants had to bite dust after Sunni tribesmen joined hands with the US to trounce them in 2006-07.
Iraq has of late witnessed a spike in bombings and suicide attacks since April crackdown on a Sunni protest camp.
The latest trigger for the tension in Anbar was the arrest of a Sunni lawmaker on Dec. 28, who was accused of terrorism charges.
It was followed by the government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp, triggering clashes with militants.
To ease the tension, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki withdrew army forces from the cities. Sunni lawmakers see the army as a tool of al-Maliki to target his rivals and consolidate power.
On Friday, al Qaeda gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah, one of the cities they swept into on Wednesday. A militant commander appeared among worshippers holding Friday prayers in the main city street, proclaiming that his fighters were there to defend Sunnis from the government, one resident said.
"We are your brothers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant," militants circulating through the city in a stolen police car proclaimed through a loudspeaker, using the name of the al-Qaida branch. "We are here to protect you from the government. We call on you to cooperate with us."
The militants have since then fended off the government attempts to retake the parts seized by them.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was "very, very concerned" by the fighting but would not send in American troops.
"We`re not contemplating putting boots on the ground... but we`re going to help in their fight".
This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis ... We are not contemplating returning." Kerry told reporters during a visit to Israel. "We will help them in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win and I am confident they can."
Meanwhile dozens were killed in the fighting between the militants and the Army in Fallujah.
Video of the airstrikes in Anbar — apparently taken by aircraft at night — was released by Iraq`s Defense Ministry showing al Qaeda hideouts being bombarded. It showed men gathered around a vehicle, then running away as the site was struck.
Sectarian and ethnic tensions have risen in Iraq since the US withdrawal in December 2011, inflamed by the conflict in neighboring Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Shi`ite Iran
Violence in Iraq spiked in April after the government staged a crackdown on a major Sunni protest camp. Iraq`s al Qaeda branch has fed on Sunni discontent and on the civil war in neighboring Syria, in which mostly Sunni rebels fight a government whose base is a Shiite offshoot sect.
Militants have targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of coordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.
According to the UN, Iraq had the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the country`s sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007. The UN said violence killed 8,868 last year.
With Agency Inputs