Fighting turns Falluja into ghost town
Residents have left the city as fighting between the army and al-Qaeda militants intensify
Heavy shelling and ongoing fighting between the Iraqi army and militants turned Falluja into a ghost town after most of its residents escaped for their lives.
An area around the city’s main hospital remained the only place where people could still be seen moving around, Al Arabiya correspondent reported.
“The city of Falluja has become a ghost town, abandoned. Now were going to areas outside Falluja to save our children, families and women from the indiscriminate shelling,” a man told Al Arabiya News Channel as he was leaving the town with his family.
Armed fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could be seen taking positions in different parts of Falluja.
Meanwhile, the army and allied tribal fighters were seen positioned on the outskirts of the city.
“We are being careful and selective in targeting militants in the city because there are still some families and civilians,” an Iraqi military officer said.
The Iraqi forces have battled militants in Anbar province for weeks, without major breakthrough. The United States is moving to supply the Iraqi army with advanced weaponry that could help speed up taking control of areas currently under al-Qaeda.
The Obama administration notified Congress on Monday of plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq after addressing lawmakers' concerns that held up the sale for months.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said on its website it had informed Congress of the possible sale of the Boeing Co-built helicopters to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is in a standoff with Islamist militants in the western province of Anbar two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The administration also notified Congress of plans to lease Iraq up to six Apaches, which a U.S. defense official said would be used for training purposes until the purchased Apaches were delivered. The cost of the purchased Apaches, and the equipment and support that accompanies them, is worth about $4.8 billion, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said.
The Obama administration is also seeking to expedite delivery of fighter jets, missiles, surveillance drones and
other weaponry to Iraq.
But the Apache sale was held up for months by concerns from lawmakers about how the helicopters would be used.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, withheld support for those plans because of concerns about how Washington could ensure that security forces under Maliki, a Shi'ite increasingly at odds with minority Sunnis, use the helicopters prudently.
A Senate aide said that the committee had signed off on the lease and sale of the helicopters after the State Department "engaged with us extensively this month."
"Based upon these discussions, the committee has signed off on the lease and sale of the Apaches," the aide said.
The Pentagon agency also announced the possible sale of support equipment for the leased Apaches totaling $1.37 billion and including Hellfire missiles and launchers, and pilot night-vision sensors. In addition to Boeing, principal
contractors will be Lockheed Martin Corp, General Electric Co and Robertson Fuel Systems.
Menendez had also voiced concern about whether officials were keeping Congress sufficiently informed about efforts to ensure Iraq does not permit Iran to carry weapons to Syria across Iraqi airspace.
Many in Washington view Maliki with suspicion because of his close ties with Iran and his strained relations with Iraq's minorities. But Maliki has been a U.S. ally on security, and could win a third term in elections in April.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Maliki on Sunday, and praised steps his government has made to draw Sunni tribesmen into Iraqi security forces.
The administration also notified Congress last week of plans to sell 500 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, part of a package of
'replenishment' supplies that Maliki requested this month.
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