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 / Updated  / Source: Associated Press

Iraq's prime minister urged Fallujah residents on Monday to expel al-Qaeda militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city — a sign that the government could be paving the way for an imminent military push in an attempt to oust Sunni insurgents.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, did not say how he expects Fallujah residents and pro-government tribesmen to push out the militants. Dozens of families have begun fleeing Fallujah to nearby towns, crammed in cars loaded with their belongings.

Iraqi government troops have surrounded Fallujah, which was overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda's Iraq branch last week. The city is just 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It is located in the vast Sunni-dominated and largely desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria.

The Iraqi al-Qaeda group, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, seized Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi last week.

Both the U.S. and Iran view the escalating conflict with alarm, with neither wanting to see al-Qaeda take firmer root inside Iraq. Both the U.S. and Iran have promised aid, but will not send troops.

Iraqi troops have been trying to dislodge the militants from the two cities since. On Sunday, fighting between militant extremists and government forces and allied tribesmen in Anbar killed dozens of people,

Fallujah residents said clashes continued into Monday along the main highway that links Baghdad with neighboring Syria and Jordan.

The Anbar Military Command reported that Iraqi forces killed an unspecified number of militants in the village of Karma, near Fallujah on Monday.

Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Iraqi army's Anbar Military Command, told state TV that "two to three days" are needed to push the militants out of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, regardless of ongoing turmoil.

Ahmed Ali, an Iraq researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, cautioned that a military assault on Fallujah would likely lead to civilian casualties and "possibly invoke other violent tribal responses."

According to the United Nations, the violent clashes in Iraq killed 8,868 last year.

— Associated Press