By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups have tightened their grip on Falluja, defying the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government’s efforts to persuade local tribesmen to expel them from the Sunni Muslim city, residents and officials say.
Despite an army siege, fighters and weapons have been flowing into the city, where U.S. troops fought some of their fiercest battles during their 2003-11 occupation of Iraq.
In an embarrassing setback for a state that has around a million men under arms, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its tribal allies overran Falluja and parts of the nearby city Ramadi on January 1.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seeking a third term in a parliamentary election in April, deployed troops and tanks around the city of 300,000 and funneled weapons to anti-Qaeda tribesmen, but has ruled out a full-scale military assault.
He was quoted by the Washington Post on Thursday as saying that 80 soldiers and police had been killed so far, as well as more than 80 civilians and double that number of insurgents.
Ramadi, the provincial capital of the vast western province of Anbar, is mostly back under state control, but Maliki’s calls on local tribesmen to evict the militants from Falluja, just 50 km (31 miles) west of Baghdad, have so far come to nought.
Instead, scores more ISIL fighters have sneaked into the city along with an array of weaponry ranging from small arms and mortars to Grad missiles and anti-aircraft guns, according to security and local officials, residents and tribal leaders.
“Our sources in Falluja indicate that militant numbers have increased to more than 400 in the last few days and that more anti-aircraft guns were received,” said a senior local official who declined to be named. His figure could not be confirmed.
The weapons and fighters are reaching Falluja mainly from its southern environs, an area entirely under the sway of tribes hostile to the government, security officials said.
“The tribes scattered around Falluja have zero loyalty to the central government,” Sheikh Mohammed al-Bajari, a tribal leader and negotiator in the city, told Reuters by phone.
“Now they (the army) are not controlling anything and no roads can be closed,” he said of Falluja’s southern approaches.