The US is accelerating its deliveries of military equipment to Iraq to help it fight Islamic militants who have overrun Falluja and entrenched themselves in other parts of the country, the White House has announced.
Joe Biden, the US vice-president, spoke with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on Monday to express support for Iraq’s fight against al-Qaida-linked militants, a message Biden repeated in another call with Osama al-Nujaifi, speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the White House said.
“The vice-president expressed concern for those Iraqis who are suffering at the hands of terrorists and praised the recent security co-operation between Iraqi security forces and local and tribal forces in Anbar province,” the White House said in a statement.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), part of al-Qaida’s network, has been tightening its grip on the country’s Anbar province and last week captured positions in Ramadi and large parts of Falluja.
The White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US would step up its deliveries of missiles and surveillance drones to Iraq. “We’re working closely with the Iraqis to develop a holistic strategy to isolate the al-Qaida-affiliated groups and we have seen some early successes in Ramadi,” Carney said.
“This situation remains fluid and it’s too early to tell or make conclusions about it. But we’re accelerating our foreign military sales deliveries.”
The United States was looking to provide additional shipments of Hellfire missiles to Iraq, Carney said, as well as 10 ScanEagle drones and 48 Raven drones.
Maliki has urged Falluja residents to expel al-Qaida militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city as the government apparently prepares for military push against the Sunni insurgents. The prime minister did not say how he expected Falluja residents and pro-government tribesmen to push out the militants. In his message, broadcast over state TV, he also urged Iraqi troops to avoid targeting residential areas. Dozens of families have begun fleeing Falluja to nearby towns, crammed in cars loaded with their belongings.
The militants’ seizure of Falluja and parts of nearby Ramadi, once bloody battlegrounds for US troops, has marked the most direct challenge to Maliki’s government since the departure of American forces two years ago. Both the US and its longtime rival Iran view the escalating conflict with alarm, with neither wanting to see al-Qaida take firmer root inside Iraq. Washington has ruled out sending in American troops.
Tehran has signalled it is willing to send military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it. It is unclear whether Baghdad would take up the offer from Iran, which has ruled out sending ground troops.
Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq’s conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shia-led government’s unfair policies against them. Iran has the power to sway Maliki’s political fortunes ahead of upcoming elections through its deep ties to Iraq’s major Shia factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi government troops have surrounded Falluja, which was overrun by the insurgents last week. The city is 40 miles (65km) west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in the vast Sunni-dominated and largely desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, where al-Qaida-linked groups are among the most formidable fighters among the rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.