BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday urged all those who joined al-Qaida and now face a siege by his troops in the western Anbar province to give up their struggle, hinting of a possible pardon if the militants give up the fight.
Speaking in his weekly televised address Wednesday, al-Maliki also vowed to continue the "sacred war" against al-Qaida's local branch — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — and finish the push to retake key Anbar cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, which the militants overrun since last month.
"I call on those who were lured to be part of the terrorism machine led by al-Qaida to return to reason," al-Maliki said.
In return, he promised that his government will "open a new page to settle their cases so that they won't be fuel for the war that is led by al-Qaida."
The gains the militants achieved in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar — where U.S. troops faced a stubborn insurgency for years — have poised the most serious challenge to the Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011.
Clashes have been raging since late December in Anbar as Iraqi forces and fighters from pro-government Sunni tribes battle al-Qaida-linked militants to try to recapture the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi government announced the killing of 25 al-Qaida-linked militants in an airstrike in the outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital in Anbar. The Defense Ministry didn't give more details about how the death toll was confirmed but cited intelligence reports. It was not possible to independently verify the military's claim.
The strike came after clashes erupted about 12 miles (20 kilometers) west of Fallujah, following the capture of an army officer and four soldiers in the area on Monday, provincial spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi told The Associated Press.
On Wednesday, life inside Fallujah appeared to be returning to some semblance of normalcy, though the situation remained tense.
A call went out over mosque loudspeakers late Tuesday urging fleeing families to come back and to militants to leave the city. Some markets reopened and some families returned to their homes, while civilian cars and goods trucks were seen driving through the city and traffic policemen were on the streets.
Tensions have been simmering in Iraq since December 2012, when the Sunni community staged protests to denounce what they say is second-class treatments by al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
Things deteriorated in Anbar last month in the wake of the arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges, followed by the government's dismantling of a months-old anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
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