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The al-Qaida-aligned jihadis, or holy warriors, ultimately alienated many Sunnis with their hard-line ideology, and many in Fallujah ultimately fought against them. Now the Islamic State is trying to repair its image in the city. They have cleared garbage and planted flowers in road medians and allow some practices - like barbers trimming beards - that in years past they would have considered haram, or forbidden.

The Iraqi army talks a tough line. Acting Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said that his forces are determined to continue the fight as along as it takes.

“Terrorism is still there and we have to continue fighting. We will clean the province of terrorists and we will chase them from house to house,” al-Dualimi told the AP in a brief interview held in a military base near Ramadi.

But the army appears to be moving cautiously - partially because the government wants to avoid a bloodbath going into elections, and partially because it does not want to endanger its alliance with those Anbar Sunni tribes who have thrown in their lot with Maliki. Thousands of Sunni fighters back Baghdad’s forces, with their leaders stressing that the war against al-Qaida should take priority over grievances with Baghdad.

The prolonged battle in Anbar is likely to disrupt parliamentary elections scheduled for April 30. If the fighting goes on, Iraqi military officials say it would be impossible to hold elections inside Fallujah, but they can perhaps be held in its outskirts. As many as a third of the province’s cities might be affected, elections officials say.

The exclusion of some Sunni cities from the nation-wide election could deepen Sunni fears of being marginalized by the Shiite majority, which was long oppressed under Saddam’s rule and rose to power after he was toppled by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

“The people of such areas will feel that they are not rightly represented in the parliament and this will fuel feelings of marginalization. Such sentiments will not serve stability and security in the country,” says Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq.

The fighting has driven out many residents. In battleground areas of Ramadi, streets and houses are deserted, and shops are closed. Even in relatively calm districts, life stops before nightfall.

Abu Taha, a Ramadi resident, fled his house in the flashpoint area of Malaab three months ago.

“We thought that the fighting would last only for two or three weeks. We did not expect that our suffering would be open-ended,” he said, speaking on condition he be identified only by his nickname for fear of recriminations.

Abu Taha is now staying along with his eight-member family in a relative’s house in a relatively safe area in Ramadi. His savings have run out and he is dependent on his extended family to survive.

Asked to describe his circumstances, he responds: “Total misery.”

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Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.