Iraq's interim prime minister told reporters in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone yesterday that he is prepared for civilian losses in Al-Fallujah if a military offensive becomes necessary.
"If we cannot [reach a peaceful solution], I have no choice but to secure a military solution. I will do so with a heavy heart, for even with the most careful plan, there will be some loss of innocent lives," Allawi said.
The prime minister also said that time is running out to make a decision on whether to use force. "I am not putting a time schedule but we are approaching the end," he said.
Allawi's warning comes amid so-far-unsuccessful negotiations to reach a peaceful solution to the Al-Fallujah crisis. The government has demanded the exit of foreign fighters and insurgents from Al-Fallujah and the handover of all heavy and medium-sized weapons in the town to U.S. or Iraqi forces. Baghdad also has said civic leaders must allow officials to begin reconstruction projects there that could help pacify the city.
But delegations from Al-Fallujah -- including tribal notables and clerics -- meeting with government officials say foreign fighters have already left the city. They say that makes it impossible to meet Baghdad's demands.
As the talks falter, U.S. troops ringing Al-Fallujah are bringing up additional soldiers and weaponry and probing the city's outskirts in preparations for possible combat.
Speaking to reporters near Al-Fallujah yesterday, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Willy Buhl said, "We will continue to probe the enemy's defense until such time as we decide to enter and clear the city." He added, "We will do that when Prime Minister Allawi and [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush tell us it is time to go."
U.S aircraft and artillery have struck suspected insurgent targets in Al-Fallujah almost daily for several weeks in an effort to destroy rebel strongholds ahead of any fighting.
One Al-Fallujah resident described the U.S. operations this way to Reuters on 30 October: "The U.S. planes are bombing different parts of Al-Fallujah, especially the Al-Askeri and Al-Shuhada neighborhoods. The bombing was very intensive and it targeted commercial shops and civilian houses. There is resistance from armed men inside the city. The U.S. bombing was very intensive and a large number of U.S. tanks are on the highway directing their fire toward Al-Fallujah."
U.S. forces say their fire is directed against insurgent safe houses or arms caches and is not aimed at civilians.
U.S. commanders say they believe there are between 2,000 to 5,000 Iraqi and foreign fighters in Al-Fallujah. Some are believed to be former Iraqi officers loyal to Saddam Hussein. Others are Islamic militants loyal to Jordanian-born extremist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi recently declared his allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Washington and Baghdad consider the insurgent groups in Al-Fallujah to be behind many of the car bombings and other attacks aimed at U.S. and Iraqi government targets in central Iraq. Allawi's government sees regaining control over Al-Fallujah and nearby Al-Ramadi as essential if central Iraq is to take part in a first round of national elections expected in January.
As U.S. officers prepare for possible action in Al-Fallujah, they are warning their troops to expect fighting under difficult conditions and against a tenacious enemy.
U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Ramos described the challenge this way in a front-line briefing to his soldiers yesterday: "The Fallujah area is urban, got complex terrain, difficult areas to approach, very zealous fighters."
U.S. forces and insurgents in Al-Fallujah last engaged in sustained combat during April and early May. The six weeks of fighting ended in a hastily brokered truce amid reports of hundreds of civilian deaths. The accord turned over security in the city to a force -- the "Fallujah Brigade" -- led by former officers of Hussein's demobilized army.
However, U.S. and Iraqi officials say that control of the town has since passed into the hands of insurgent bands. The insurgents have limited the "Fallujah Brigade" to controlling only the approaches to the city while they control the streets.
Sentiment in Iraq appears sharply divided over whether the government should again ask U.S. troops to use force in Al-Fallujah. In an interview published today, Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir said, "I totally differ with those who believe there is a need for a military solution to the issue." He called instead for continued dialogue, saying, "This will encourage neutral citizens to stop sympathizing with the rebels."
[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]