BAGHDAD, Iraq—Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned Sunday that time was almost up for a peace agreement that could prevent a bloody, decisive battle in Fallujah, the western city where rebels are in control and U.S. Marines are poised to drive them out.
"If there is a failure in doing this peacefully, then we will do it by force," Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad. "We have to restore stability in Iraq ... The window for such a peaceful settlement is closing."
Thousands of Fallujah residents have fled in anticipation of fighting. Influential Muslim groups warn of nationwide unrest if American forces invade. U.S. airstrikes already flatten houses almost daily, with more intense bombings to come unless last-ditch peace talks bear fruit.
Allawi acknowledged the seemingly imminent offensive would result in "some loss of innocent lives." Still, he said, the government has a responsibility to retake control of a city where suspects in dozens of bombings, beheadings and other violent acts find sanctuary.
"The terrorists continue to use Fallujah and the Fallujah people as a shield for their murderous acts," Allawi said.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly demanded that Fallujah residents hand over militants associated with Jordanian terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Negotiators from Fallujah have said residents are either too scared of reprisal to give up suspects or simply don't have information about shadowy cells of Islamic extremists.
In the past week, rebels abandoned several checkpoints inside the city after U.S. airstrikes targeted them. Several residents said they have moved outside the city and come back only once a day to make sure their homes are still standing and have not been burglarized.
"We want a solution at any cost," said Muhammad Ahmed, a newlywed who moved his bride and other relatives out of their hometown this week. "We haven't known the meaning of stability since last April. Circumstances are worse than anyone could imagine."
Allawi also announced the capture of 167 suspected foreign fighters who came from across the Middle East and North Africa. Eleven Iraqis among those arrested had fought in Afghanistan. He said "a few thousand" followers of Izzat Ibrahim, the former deputy president under Saddam Hussein, were captured in recent days.
(A Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent in Fallujah contributed to this report. He is not named for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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