Iraq conflict: US backs Iraq but will not send troops - Kerry

Sunni fighters in Fallujah, 4 January Sunni gunmen in Fallujah took advantage of an army pullout earlier this week

The US secretary of state has said the US will help Iraq fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, but that it is not planning to send troops back to the country.

John Kerry said he was confident the government of Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki could defeat the militants.

Earlier, the Iraqi government said it had lost control of the key city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

Al-Qaeda-linked militants now control the south of the city, a security source told the BBC.

Iraqi officials said they had lost control to the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS.

An Iraqi reporter there says tribesmen allied with al-Qaeda hold the rest of the city.

Separately on Sunday, bombs in the capital Baghdad left at least 19 people dead. The deadliest attack, which police and medical sources told Reuters had killed nine and wounded 25, was in the Shia district of Shaab.

Map
'No boots on ground'

Mr Kerry made his comments as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to discuss his effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against their efforts to destabilise," he said.

Analysis

Fallujah is highly symbolic for Sunni Arabs, who call it the "Jerusalem" of Iraq and the "city of mosques and minarets". For them, the city is an emblem of resistance against, in their words, the "occupiers" and "oppressors" over the years.

Sunni Arabs further remember Fallujah for the battles fought by tribesmen and insurgents against US-backed Iraqi troops in 2004, and finally for sparking off the anti-government protests in late 2012 against what Sunni Arabs called marginalisation of their community.

But it was the government's decision on 30 December to break up by force the protest camp in Ramadi (another city in Anbar province) and the subsequent arrest of a prominent Sunni MP that provoked Fallujah residents and al-Qaeda militants to join forces against the regular security forces.

"We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details."

He added: "We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight."

The head of the police in Anbar province - Hadi Razeij - said on Saturday that his men had pulled back to the city walls and the people of Fallujah were "the prisoners of ISIS".

Fighting there erupted after troops broke up a protest camp by Sunni Arabs in the city of Ramadi on Monday.

They have been accusing the Shia-led government of marginalising the Sunnis.

Local Sunni Arabs have been angered by what they perceive as discrimination by the government of Mr Maliki.

They also say their minority community is being targeted by anti-terrorism measures implemented to stem the surge in sectarian violence.

For many Fallujah residents, the Iraqi army is serving the "sectarian" agenda of Prime Minister Maliki's Shia-led government, says BBC Arabic analyst Ahmed Maher.

Start Quote

A headquarters for the leadership of al-Qaeda”

End Quote How Prime Minister Nouri Maliki described the Ramadi camp

But among other Iraqis, Fallujah is also known as the "city of terrorism" as it served as the nucleus of al-Qaeda in their country. After the US-led invasion in 2003, al-Qaeda based itself in Fallujah where several beheadings and killings of foreigners took place.

And there is a growing concern among many Iraqis that the ever-rebranded al-Qaeda will seize on the current fighting against the army to regroup and turn Fallujah into a safe haven for jihadists, Ahmed Maher says.

In recent months, Sunni militants have stepped up attacks across Iraq, while Shia groups began deadly reprisals - raising fears of a return to full-scale sectarian conflict.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces had been killed in 2013.

The annual death toll was the highest in years, but still significantly below those recorded at the height of the insurgency in 2006 and 2007.

US forces ended combat missions in Iraq in 2010 and left the country in late 2011, having entered in 2003 in a US-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

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