BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister urged residents and tribes of Fallujah to "expel" al-Qaida militants from the Sunni-dominated 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, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in fear of a major showdown.
Iraqi government troops have surrounded the city, which was overrun by al-Qaida 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-Qaida linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which also has gained influence battling government forces in neighboring 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-Qaida have been a blow to Iraq's Shiite-led government, as sectarian violence has escalated since the U.S. withdrawal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said 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 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 Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government's unfair policies against them.
Fallujah residents said clashes continued into early Monday along the main highway that links the capital, Baghdad, to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Al-Qaida fighters and their supporters maintained control of the city center, flooding the streets and surrounding government buildings. Al-Qaida 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. All residents in Anbar that talked to The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.
Dozens of families fled the two cities to nearby towns, crammed in cars loaded with their belongings.
Fighters from a pro-government Sunni militia killed six militants in a firefight outside Fallujah on Monday, a police officer said.
Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Iraqi army's Anbar Military Command, told state TV that "two to three days" are needed to push the militants out of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.
Also Monday, militants in a speeding car attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint Monday in the mainly Sunni Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, which is near Anbar, killing two soldiers and wounding four, a police officer and a medical official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to media.
Tensions in Anbar have run high since Dec. 28, when Iraqi security forces arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges. Two days later, the government dismantled a months-old, anti-government Sunni protest camp, sparking clashes with militants.
Iraq's al-Qaida branch has fed on Sunni discontent and on Syria's civil war, in which mostly Sunni rebels fight the government of President Bashar Assad whose base is a Shiite offshoot sect.
Sectarian violence in Iraq spiked after the government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp last April. Militants have also targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of coordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.
According to the United Nations, Iraq had the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.
Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.