BAGHDAD Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Sunday ruled out a military assault on Falluja, saying he wanted to spare the city more carnage and give Sunni Muslim tribesmen time to expel al Qaeda-linked fighters.
"We want to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed because the people of Falluja have suffered a lot," he told Reuters in an interview in Baghdad, referring to the devastating assaults by U.S. forces to evict insurgents in 2004.
Fighters of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their tribal allies took over Falluja and parts of the nearby city of Ramadi nearly two weeks ago at a time of Sunni anger with the Shi'ite-led government, stirred by a bloody raid to arrest a Sunni politician in Ramadi.
Maliki said he had reassured fearful residents of Falluja that the army would not attack, but told them that they must take the city back from the militants who overran it on January 1.
"There is a good response from Falluja's sons and tribes," the Iraqi leader said. "We do not care how long this takes."
Iraqi security forces and tribesmen hostile to ISIL last week regained control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which borders Syria.
Maliki said the army would maintain its encirclement of Falluja, 70 km (44 miles) west of Baghdad, to stop militants using it as a base for attacks.
"The important thing is not to attack the city and kill innocent people because of those criminals."
At least 60 civilians and tribal fighters have been killed and nearly 300 wounded in Falluja and Ramadi in the past two weeks, according to health officials. No casualty figures were available for militants or members of the Iraqi armed forces.
U.S. officials have urged Maliki's government to adopt a restrained approach to the Falluja crisis, while encouraging it to address Sunni grievances that al Qaeda has exploited, pursue reconciliation and embrace a more inclusive politics.
Two years after it pulled all U.S. troops from Iraq, the United States is working to speed up shipments of Hellfire missiles, surveillance aircraft and other gear requested by Maliki to help Iraqi forces rebuff ISIL's comeback in Anbar.
Maliki said Washington had also shared intelligence information and satellite imagery of ISIL camps near the border with Syria in the Sunni-dominated desert province.
Officials in Baghdad have blamed Iraq's slide back into violence on the conflict in Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions and fuelled instability across the region.
According to the United Nations, 8,868 people were killed in Iraq in 2013, the highest toll for five years.
Many in Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority share ISIL's enmity towards Maliki's government, which they perceive as pursuing narrow Shi'ite interests and in thrall to Iran.
But others are deeply hostile to al Qaeda, including tribal leaders whose Sahwa (Awakening) militias helped U.S. troops rout the militants who controlled much of Anbar at the height of Iraq's insurgency and sectarian conflict in 2006-07.
The departure of U.S. troops weakened the Sahwa fighters, who complained of a lack of government support even as they came under sustained attack from resurgent al Qaeda militants.
Falluja residents said most shops in the city centre were open on Sunday and some families who had fled the city were returning, although many still feared a military offensive.
The town of Khalidiya, located between Ramadi and Falluja, came under army fire from mortars and helicopters, locals said.
The Falluja crisis is a major test for Maliki, who is seeking a third term in a parliamentary election on April 30.
(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Kevin Liffey)