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Al-Fallujah remains a trouble spot (file photo)
Al-Fallujah has long made the headlines as the most restive place in central Iraq. The Sunni-majority city is the base of a number of locally and foreign-led insurgent groups, including that of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, Washington's most wanted man in Iraq. But now, there are new efforts afoot to bring Al-Fallujah under the Iraqi government's control.
Prague, 14 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned residents of Al-Fallujah yesterday to turn over foreign fighters in the city or face a major military operation to expel them.
"If al-Zarqawi and his group are not handed over to us, we are ready for major operations in Al-Fallujah," Allawi said. "We are determined to safeguard the Iraqi people, because there are forces that want to inflict harm on the Iraqi people. I hope they [people in Al-Fallujah] respond. If they don't, we will have to use force."
Iraqi and U.S. officials call al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born extremist, an Al-Qaeda associate. He is considered the coordinator of many of the car bombings attacks that occur almost daily in central Iraq and his group has beheaded several foreign hostages.
Allawi's warning comes as U.S. forces conduct almost daily air strikes against buildings in Al-Fallujah suspected of use by al-Zarqawi's group. An air strike on 12 October destroyed the city's best-known restaurant, which the U.S. military said was used as an arms depot.
The interim prime minister did not give the residents of Al-Fallujah a time limit to meet his demands.
A major U.S. military operation to flush out insurgents in April resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths before it ended in a shaky peace deal. Under the accord, security in the city became the responsibility of the "Fallujah Brigade," a force led by former officers of Saddam Hussein's demobilized army.
However, U.S. and Iraqi officials -- as well as Iraqi journalists who visit the city -- say control of the town has passed into the hands of insurgent bands. The insurgent groups include Islamic militants, loyalists of the former regime, and foreign-led groups like al-Zarqawi's. They have limited the Fallujah Brigade to controlling only the approaches to the city while they control its streets.
Allawi's warning to Al-Fallujah comes amid recently reopened negotiations between city leaders and the Iraqi government.
The chief negotiator representing Al-Fallujah in the talks, Sunni cleric Khalid al-Jumaili, told Reuters yesterday that both sides agree on the outline of a solution for the restive city: "The [Al-Fallujah] delegation has agreed with the Iraqi government, one, that negotiations should be held with the Iraqi government; two, that all military operations against the city of Al-Fallujah will be halted; and three, we have agreed, or the two parties are close to agreeing, that the National Guards should enter the city of Al-Fallujah without any interference from America or any member of the coalition -- only the national army, the National Guard of the Iraqi government."
It remains unclear how Washington would react to such a settlement. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they see unfettered access for multinational forces to all areas of Iraq as essential to maintaining security.
It also remains to be seen whether Al-Fallujah's residents will comply with the efforts to get them to turn over foreign fighters.
However, recent news reports from the city indicate that much of the population may be tiring of the foreigners' presence.
The U.S. daily "The Washington Post" reported today that many residents regard the foreign-led groups as religious extremists with different aims than those of the local, so-called nationalist groups resisting the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The paper reported that people in Al-Fallujah are unhappy with the foreigners' stern brand of Islam. Foreign extremists reportedly berate women who are not covered head-to-toe in public, despite the fact that such covering is rare in Iraq.
"The Washington Post" also reported that locals are increasingly refusing to allow foreign fighters to lodge in residential districts because their presence attracts U.S. air strikes. The fighters now shelter in the commercial districts.
The government's warning that another military operation against Al-Fallujah could be imminent follows the successful reassertion of government control over the city of Samarra in early October.