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May 29, 2017

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Iraqi troops postpone assault on Fallujah

RAMADI, Iraq--Iraqi troops will delay an offensive against the militant-held city of Fallujah for fear of causing civilian casualties, an official said Tuesday, while fighting and missile strikes in nearby Ramadi killed 29 people.

Parts of Ramadi — the capital of Anbar province, west of Baghdad — and all of Fallujah were seized by al-Qaida-linked militants last week.

It is the first time jihadists have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"It is not possible to assault (Fallujah) now" due to concerns about civilian casualties, Defense Ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP.

Attacking the Sunni-majority city would also be extremely politically sensitive, as it would inflame already-high tensions between members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite-led government.

And it would be a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of American forces.

Overnight, security forces and allied tribesmen sought to retake south Ramadi from fighters loyal to al-Qaida-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but the assault failed.

"Security forces and armed tribesmen tried last night to enter areas controlled by ISIL 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 a.m.," he said, adding that "security forces were not able to enter these areas and ISIL 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, Askari said.

Meanwhile, three loud explosions were 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for residents to expel ISIL militants and stave off a military offensive.

But senior tribal leader Sheikh Ali al-Hammad told AFP Monday that ISIL's fighters had left Fallujah, and that it was now in the hands of tribesmen.

US Working with Iraq to Isolate al-Qaida

As violence in Anbar entered its second week, the Pentagon said Washington would accelerate delivery of 100 Hellfire missiles, which were due to be sent to Iraq in the next few months.

Colonel Steven Warren said an additional 10 ScanEagle surveillance drones would also be delivered.

Warren said Washington was working with Iraq to develop a "holistic strategy to isolate Al Qaeda-affiliated groups so the tribes working with the security forces can drive them out of the populated areas."

But he reiterated statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that no American forces would enter the fray.

Fighting erupted near Ramadi on Dec. 30, when security forces cleared a year-old protest camp where Sunni Arabs had been demonstrating against what they see as the marginalization and targeting of their minority community by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

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