The Iraqi army deployed tanks and artillery around Fallujah on Tuesday, security officials said, as local leaders in the besieged city urged al-Qaeda-linked militants to leave in order to avert an impending military assault.
Meanwhile fighting and missile strikes in nearby Ramadi killed 29 people Tuesday.
Security officials and tribal leaders have said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to hold off an offensive to give people in Fallujah time to push the militants out. But it is not clear how long they have before troops storm the town, close to Baghdad.
Fighters, some of them foreign, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda affiliate also active across the border in Syria, overran police stations in Fallujah and another city in Iraq’s western Anbar province last week.
Many in Iraq’s once dominant Sunni Muslim minority, the main group in Anbar, share ISIS’s dislike of Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. But tribal leaders in the province are trying to steer a path between the army and the al Qaeda fighters.
“If the army attacks Fallujah to fight a handful of al-Qaeda elements, that will have dire consequences by triggering endless violence,” one tribal leader in Fallujah told Reuters, adding that it could spread to other Sunni districts.
“We are sending a clear message to the government,” he said. “Go ahead and fight al-Qaeda outside Fallujah and we ourselves will deal with the issue inside the city.”
Overnight, security forces and allied tribesmen sought to retake south Ramadi from the ISIS, but the assault failed.
“Security forces and armed tribesmen tried last night to enter areas controlled by ISIS fighters in the south of the city,” a police captain in Ramadi told AFP.
“Clashes between the two sides began about 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) last night and continued until 6:00 am,” he said, adding that “security forces were not able to enter these areas and ISIS fighters are still in control.”
Four civilians were killed and 14 wounded in the fighting, said Ramadi hospital’s Dr Ahmed Abdul Salam, who had no casualty figures for security forces or the militants.
Later on Tuesday, Iraqi carried out missile strikes against militants in Ramadi, killing 25, defense ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP.
Three loud explosions were also heard outside Fallujah early Tuesday, a witness said, while the army deployed reinforcements.
“Today, the army sent new reinforcements, including tanks and vehicles, to an area about 15 kilometers (10 miles) east of Fallujah,” a police captain told AFP.