A delegation from the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah suspended peace talks with the government Thursday because of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s “impossible” demand to hand over terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a city spokesman said.
U.S. warplanes, meanwhile, intensified airstrikes in Fallujah on Thursday, hitting at least three sites which the command said were being used by followers of al-Zarqawi. At least five people were killed and 16 wounded in all, according to Fallujah General Hospital.
Warplanes have frequently struck in Fallujah, targeted suspected militants sites, even as Allawi’s government has tried to strike a deal with local leaders to allow Iraqi security forces to take control of the city, west of Baghdad.
Allawi warned on Wednesday that that Fallujah must surrender al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters or face military attack.
Abu Asaad, spokesman for the religious council of Fallujah, said that “handing over al-Zarqawi” was an “impossible condition” since even the Americans were unable to catch him.
“Since we exhausted all peaceful solutions, the city is now ready to bear arms and defend its religion and honor, and it’s not afraid of Allawi’s statements,” Asaad said in a live interview with Al-Jazeera television.
However, he said the talks were “suspended,” implying they could resume later.
Government's allegiance assailed
Allawi’s “government now is an (American) agent that is working to make this city easy for American troops to enter and do what they want,” Assad said. “Military operations didn’t even stop when the negotiating delegation was in Baghdad ... Dozens are killed every day. Entire families have been eliminated.”
Negotiations had been aimed at restoring government control to Fallujah, which fell under the domination of clerics and their armed mujahedeen followers after the end of the three-week Marine siege in April.
The top negotiator from Fallujah said earlier that parts of a deal had been reached but the two sides were stalled over how to deal with Iraqi gunmen wanted by the U.S. and Iraqi government on criminal charges. Many Fallujah residents see the mujahedeen as heroes resisting U.S. domination.
Government vows more action
The government made no comment about the breakdown of the Fallujah talks. However, national security adviser Qassem Dawoud said military operations against Fallujah will continue until the city “has been cleansed” of “terrorists.”
In Thursday’s strikes, the U.S. military said one targeted building was being used to store weapons and two were safe houses used to plan attacks.
Late Thursday, Fallujah residents reported another intensive round of U.S. bombardment. Witnesses said multiple locations in the city were coming under major attack.
U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group, Tawhid and Jihad, is headquartered in Fallujah. The group purportedly claimed responsibility for two bombings Thursday inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone, according to a statement posted on a Web site known for its Islamic content.