Assault on Iraqi city of Fallujah on hold as masked gunmen retain control

Iraqi soldiers monitor a checkpoint east of Baghdad on January 10, 2014.

A deadly standoff between Iraqi authorities and gunmen holding key territory on Baghdad's doorstep entered its second week on Friday, ahead of prayers where militants previously declared an Islamic state.

Gunmen seized all of the city of Fallujah, located just 37 miles from Baghdad, and parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi last week, a standoff that a senior US official has warned could take weeks to resolve.

It is the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

Al Qaeda militants or not?

Iraqis fleeing from Fallujah questioned whether the masked gunmen who overran their city 10 days ago were really Al Qaeda-linked militants as the government says, but fear their presence will draw a ferocious response from the army regardless.

Al Qaeda-linked militants, who are also fighting in neighboring Syria, have been regaining ground over the past year in Anbar, which they seized in 2006-07 before being forced out by local tribal militia and occupying US troops.

Some witnesses say some of the gunmen initially raised black Al Qaeda flags over police stations they captured in Fallujah and appealed to local citizens for support over mosque loudspeakers during Friday prayers a week ago.

But those flags have now gone and residents said they did not believe the gunmen, who guard the streets at night and told them they had nothing to fear, were members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"We didn't see a strong armed presence representing ISIL, only masked gunmen carrying weapons," said Monzher Hazallah, an engineer who has spent several days in Iraq's Kurdish north after fleeing Fallujah.

"We don't know who they are. They are masked."

Meanwhile, security forces have recruited their own tribal allies in the fighting that has raged in Anbar for more than 10 days.

Pressure to resolve conflict

The United Nations and non-governmental organizations have warned civilians lack access to key supplies as a result of a government blockade.

And Washington has piled pressure on Iraq to focus on political reconciliation as well as military operations to resolve the standoff.

The Anbar crisis and a protracted surge in nationwide violence are among the biggest threats faced by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his eight years in office, and come just months before the first general election in four years.

Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses by all sides in the Anbar clashes, criticizing government forces for allegedly using indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighborhoods, and militants for deploying in and attacking from populated areas.

"Apparently unlawful methods of fighting by all sides have caused civilian casualties and severe property damage," the New York-based group said.

The Iraqi Red Crescent said it had provided humanitarian assistance to more than 8,000 families across Anbar but that upwards of 13,000 had fled.

In Washington, US Vice President Joe Biden called Maliki for the second time this week, raising pressure on the premier over the unrest.

He urged Maliki to "continue the Iraqi government's outreach to local, tribal, and national leaders," following the loss of Fallujah, a White House statement said.

A senior US official meanwhile warned the crisis could take weeks to resolve.

"We're encouraging a patient and deliberate approach," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I think weeks would be prudent."

Masked gunmen still control city

An AFP journalist reported this week that traffic police had returned to Fallujah's streets, some shops had reopened and more cars could be seen, but masked gunmen still controlled the city.

An Iraqi military spokesman has said an assault on Fallujah was on hold for fear of civilian casualties.

Attacking the Sunni-majority city would be a significant test for security forces, who have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of US troops.

It would also be extremely sensitive politically, as it would inflame already high tensions between the Sunni Arab minority and the Shia-led government.

Fighting erupted near Ramadi on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.

The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.