Iraq launches combined aerial and artillery attack on Fallujah

Major incursion could lead to protracted conflict

BAGHDAD - Attacks in Iraq killed three people Saturday while the army claimed to have killed militants in a combined aerial and artillery attack on Fallujah, a militant-held city they have largely stayed out of.
Iraq has just concluded its deadliest month in nearly six years, with more than 1,000 people killed in January, as it grapples with a surge in bloodshed and a deadly standoff with anti-government fighters on Baghdad's doorstep.
Aerial bombardment and artillery fire on a neighbourhood in northern Fallujah, a rare major operation in the city, has killed 15 militants, the defence ministry announced Saturday, without saying when the assault took place.
The army has largely stayed out of Fallujah, just a short drive from Baghdad, fearing any major incursion could lead to a bloody and protracted conflict with massive civilian casualties and property damage.
Indeed, American battles in the city, a bastion of militants following the 2003 US-led invasion, were among their bloodiest since the Vietnam War.
Fallujah is located in Anbar province, a mostly Sunni desert region west of Baghdad that shares a border with Syria.
Security forces have been locked in a deadly stand-off in Anbar with militants, including those affiliated with the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
For weeks, anti-government forces have held parts of provincial capital Ramadi and all of nearby Fallujah, the first time they have exercised such open control in cities since the peak of violence that followed the US-led invasion.
ISIL has been involved in the fighting, as well as other militant groups and anti-government elements, while the police and army have recruited their own tribal allies.
The standoff has prompted more than 140,000 people to flee their homes, the UN refugee agency said, describing it as the worst displacement in Iraq since the peak of a 2006-2008 sectarian conflict.
Diplomats and analysts say the authorities must do more to tackle grievances cited by Sunnis, who claim the government and security forces unfairly target their community, but officials have trumpeted security operations.
"Security operations need to go hand-in-hand with inclusive policies, based on the respect for human rights, the rule of law, social development," UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.
Elsewhere Saturday, a bombing at a wholesale vegetable market in south Baghdad killed two people, while another blast targeting an army patrol just north of the capital left a soldier dead.
Violence has surged markedly higher in recent months, with January's death toll the highest for a month since April 2008, according to government data.
The UN released its own January toll Saturday, putting the deaths at 733, but said that did not include Anbar.