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Iraq's prime minister today called upon the residents of the Al-Qaeda-occupied city of Fallujah to oust the militants, spurring speculation that Iraqi military forces are set to retake the city imminently.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a statement released today, asked "the people of Fallujah and its tribes to expel the terrorists" in order to ensure that "their areas are not subjected to the danger of armed clashes," BBC News reports.
The gunmen overran the predominantly Sunni city and parts of the surrounding Anbar Province, including nearby Ramadi, last week, prompting hundreds to flee amid ongoing artillery and air strikes by government forces. The militants, members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly known by the acronym ISIS), made their move amid ongoing protests in the region against the Shiite-dominated central government, which Sunnis say has marginalized them.
The situation in Fallujah has drawn offers of support for Baghdad from both the US and Iran. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would do “everything that is possible" to support Iraqi forces against ISIL, though he said that did not include US troops on the ground.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said toward the end of a visit to Jerusalem. “We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”
The Washington Post notes that Fallujah has a particular resonance for the US military, being the site of a major US offensive against Sunni militants in 2004 during the US invasion of Iraq. The Post writes that the offensive was "the most deadly confrontation of the Iraq war for U.S. forces and some of their bloodiest fighting since the Vietnam War."
Mr. Kerry did not specify the sort of support that the US would provide Iraq, though the Post adds that Washington has supplied Baghdad with missiles and promised to send drones in recent months.
And Iran has also offered military support to Baghdad in its operations in Anbar, reports Deutsche Welle. Iranian Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi told local media on Sunday that Iran was ready to provide Iraq with "military equipment or consultation" should Iraqi officials ask. Iran's Shiite government is closely allied with its counterparts in Iraq, and is a prime opponent of Al Qaeda and its various affiliates.
Despite the ongoing fighting around Fallujah and Anbar Province – which left at least 34 people dead on Sunday, according to Voice of America – ISIL's high profile may belie the group's weakness in Iraq, writes Deutsche Welle in a separate analysis. While ISIL has been prominent first in Syria and now in Anbar, where it declared an "Islamic state," it has been experiencing setbacks as of late.
Günter Meyer, head of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at Mainz University, notes that in the past few days, ISIL has suffered severe setbacks, especially in Syria, and he thinks that has stopped their drive forward for now. Their occupation of Fallujah and Ramadi was a "short-term push," he told Deutsche Welle.
And he doesn't take reports about the declaration of an Islamic state in Fallujah too seriously: "Wherever ISIL takes control, it's going to declare an emirate with a local Emir who's in charge of the troops. Ultimately though, this doesn't carry a lot of weight."
And while Jochen Hippler, a political scientist at the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told Deutsche Welle that "there are areas in both countries where the ISIL militants are the strongest military force," Mr. Hippler adds that most people don't support the group. ISIL "is notorious for the brutality it employs to maintain its regional power," he says.