Newspaper article International New York Times

Iraqi Tribes to Take Lead in Falluja Fight ; Army Plans to Surround City So Sunnis Can Oust Jihadists, U.S. Reports

Newspaper article International New York Times

Iraqi Tribes to Take Lead in Falluja Fight ; Army Plans to Surround City So Sunnis Can Oust Jihadists, U.S. Reports

Article excerpt

The military hopes to control areas around the city and then cordon off the area, before Sunni tribal fighters try to take back the city street by street.

The Iraqi Army is planning to cordon off a key Sunni city now occupied by jihadists so that Sunni tribes can lead the mission to secure it one neighborhood at a time, a senior State Department official has told Congress.

"The plan is to have the tribes out in front, but with the army in support," Brett McGurk, the State Department's top official on Iraq, said Wednesday, describing preparations to try to oust the jihadists from the city of Falluja, in Anbar Province.

The Iraqi strategy to take on the militants has been developed with advice from American military officers, including Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command, who met in Baghdad last week with Iraqi officials and military commanders.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said in a weekly address on Wednesday that "the battle is about to end in Anbar." But Mr. McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that General Austin had been urging "patience and planning."

"We're helping the Iraqis develop a plan," Mr. McGurk said.

As described by American officials, the Iraqi plan reflects a recognition that having the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army mount a frontal assault on a Sunni city that has long been wary of outsiders could lead to an especially violent round of urban warfare and fan sectarian tensions.

The jihadist strategy appears to be to provoke the Iraqi government to carry out just such an assault. On Jan. 26, Mr. McGurk said, the militant group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, captured about a dozen Iraqi soldiers near Falluja, paraded them through the city in a truck flying the black flag of Al Qaeda, then videotaped their execution the next day.

"Falluja is the scene of a tense standoff," Mr. McGurk said.

In 2004, American forces took control of Falluja from insurgent forces at a considerable cost in American lives. After the "surge" of American troops in 2007 and 2008, American officials portrayed the city as something of a success story.

But on Jan. 1 of this year, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants drove into Falluja and the nearby city of Ramadi in as many as 100 trucks equipped with heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns, Mr. McGurk said. The jihadists moved quickly to control key intersections and destroy local police stations.

Though Al Qaeda, whose clout is diminishing, has broken with the jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria remains a formidable foe. The group, Mr. McGurk said, has about 2,000 fighters in Iraq, and its longer-term objective is to establish a base of operations in Baghdad. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been officially designated as a global terrorist by the State Department. …

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