Iraq's prime minister urged people in the besieged city of Fallujah on Monday to drive out Al Qaeda-linked insurgents to pre-empt a military offensive that officials said could be launched within days.
In a statement on state television, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim whose government has little support in Sunni-dominated Fallujah, called on tribal leaders to drive out militants who last week seized key towns in the desert leading to the Syrian border.
"The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Fallujah to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes," read the statement.
Maliki promised the army, stationed outside the city, would not attack residential areas in Fallujah as his forces prepare an offensive that has echoes of US assaults in 2004 on the city, some 40 km (25 miles) west of Baghdad's main airport.
Security officials said Maliki, who is also commander in chief of the armed forces, had agreed to hold off an offensive for now at least to give tribal leaders in Fallujah more time to drive out the Sunni Islamist militants on their own.
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"No specific deadline was determined, but it will not be open-ended," a special forces officer said of plans to attack.
"We are not prepared to wait too long. We're talking about a matter of days only. More time means more strength for terrorists."
Two local tribal leaders said meetings were being held with clerics and community leaders to find a way to persuade fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to quit Fallujah and avert further bloodshed.
On Monday, a senior tribal sheikh told Agence France-Presse that Al Qaeda-linked militants had left Fallujah.
"There is no ISIL in the city," Sheikh Ali al-Hammad told AFP by telephone. "They all left."
"The gunmen inside are from the sons of the tribes, and they are here to defend" the city, he said, without elaborating.
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Air strike on Ramadi
Iraqi government forces battling an Al Qaeda offensive near the Syrian border launched an air strike on Ramadi city on Sunday killing 25 Islamist militants, according to local officials.
Government officials in western Anbar province met tribal leaders to urge them to help repel Al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, strategic Iraqi cities on the Euphrates River.
Al Qaeda's ISIL has been steadily tightening its grip in the vast Anbar province in recent months in a bid to create a Sunni Muslim state straddling the frontier with Syria.
But last week's capture of positions in Ramadi and large parts of Fallujah was the first time in years that Sunni insurgents had taken ground in the province's major cities and held their positions for days.
Local officials and tribal leaders in Ramadi said that 25 suspected militants were killed in the air force strike, which targeted eastern areas of the city early on Sunday.
In Fallujah, ISIL's task has been made easier by disgruntled tribesmen who have joined its fight against the government.
"As a local government we are doing our best to avoid sending the army to Fallujah ... now we are negotiating outside the city with the tribes to decide how to enter the city without allowing the army to be involved," said Falih Eisa, a member of Anbar's provincial council.
One option being considered to oust Al Qaeda from Fallujah would be for army units and tribal fighters to form a "belt" around the city, isolating it and cutting supply routes for militants, military and local officials said.
They would also urge residents to leave the city.
"The siege could take days, we are betting on the time to give people a chance to leave the city, weaken the militants and exhaust them," a senior military officer who declined to be named said.
Tension has been running high across Anbar — which borders Syria and was the heart of Iraq's Sunni insurgency after the 2003 US-led invasion — since Iraqi police broke up a Sunni protest last week, resulting in deadly clashes.
(Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by William Maclean, Ralph Boulton and Eric Walsh)