Iraqi General Mohammed al-Askari has claimed that a government airstrike killed dozens of militants in Anbar province. So far, Baghdad has held off on launching an all out assault on al Qaeda-controlled cities there.
Tuesday's airstrike targeted an operations center used by al Qaeda-linked militants near the provincial capital, Ramadi, according to Iraqi military spokesman General al-Askari. The airstrike could not be independently confirmed by media on the ground, but the general said that the death toll was based on intelligence reports. He did not provide further details.
Iraqi security forces have been battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda-linked group that captured portions of southern Ramadi and all of nearby Fallujah last week. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has threatened to launch an assault on the Sunni-majority cities if local tribesmen do not eject the militants.
But General al-Askari told the AFP news agency that Baghdad has delayed the planned military operation due to concerns about potential civilian casualties.
Religious tensions in Iraq have sharpened in recent months, with minority Sunnis accusing the Shiite-led government of using terrorism charges as a pretense to oppress and marginalize their community. The recent wave of violence was triggered when Iraqi troops broke up a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi at the end of December.
US offers support, but no troops
The Obama administration has said that it will work with Baghdad to build a comprehensive strategy to deal with the resurgence of al Qaeda-linked militants in western Iraq. But Washington has categorically rejected the idea of deploying ground troops there. US troops fought two fierce battles to eject al Qaeda from Fallujah in 2004.
US Army chief General Ray Odierno became the latest American official to reject the idea of deploying ground troops to stop the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Odierno commanded the US-led coalition in Iraq during the troop surge of 2007, when Washington sent in thousands of additional soldiers to stem the violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
"This is not the time to put American troops in," Odierno told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. "Our goal right now is to let (the Iraqis) take care of this problem."
Washington has promised to speed up weapons deliveries to Iraq, including 100 hellfire missiles and 10 additional surveillance drones. Those arms are expected to reach Iraq by the spring.
Critics have blamed the White House for the recent wave of violence, saying that the failure to leave a residual US troop presence after the 2011 withdrawal led to a power vacuum in Iraq. The Obama administration did seek to keep a military presence in Iraq, but negotiations with Baghdad failed over the issue of legal immunity for US troops.
"There was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict, in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday. "So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq I think bears scrutiny."
slk/jr (AP, dpa, AFP)