Sunday, October 31, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister warned yesterday that efforts to resolve the standoff in Fallujah peacefully have entered their “final phase” and said he will not hesitate to order “a military solution” to end Sunni insurgents’ hold over the city.

In another city in Iraq’s stormy Sunni Triangle, a rocket slammed into the Sunubar Hotel in Tikrit late yesterday, killing 15 Iraqis and wounding eight others, hospital officials said. Insurgents might have been aiming at an American position, which was targeted by a second rocket. U.S. officials said no American casualties were reported.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s warning, delivered in a nationally televised press conference, occurred as U.S. forces prepare for a showdown with thousands of militants holed up in Fallujah — the city that has become the focal point of armed resistance to the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

Mr. Allawi appeared to be trying to prepare the Iraqi public for an onslaught that is likely to unleash strong passions, especially among the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

He warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an assault, it would be with a “heavy heart,” because “there will be some loss of innocent lives.”

“But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents,” he said.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders want to put down guerrillas before vital elections scheduled for Jan. 31, which Mr. Allawi has insisted will take place as scheduled. Yesterday, insurgents in Fallujah fired mortar rounds and rockets at U.S. Marines, who responded with artillery. U.S. aircraft also struck suspected rebel positions, Marine officials said.

Clashes also were reported between U.S. forces and insurgents in Ramadi, west of Fallujah, killing seven Iraqis and injuring 11, hospital officials said.

U.S. officials say Mr. Allawi will issue the final order to begin any all-out assault on Fallujah and other Sunni insurgent strongholds north and west of the capital.

Mr. Allawi gave no deadline for talks with Fallujah city leaders to bear fruit, but he insisted that they must hand over foreign fighters and allow Iraqi security forces to take control of the city.

Mr. Allawi also said authorities have arrested 167 Arab foreign fighters, who are in Iraqi custody.

Sunni clerics have threatened to call for a nationwide civil-disobedience campaign and to boycott national elections in January if the Americans attack Fallujah.

The city has become the nexus of an insurgent network that has carried out numerous car bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages since the Bush administration ordered Marines to halt an offensive against the city in April.

Fallujah is thought to be the headquarters of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who announced his allegiance to al Qaeda last month.

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