BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s interim prime minister
yesterday warned that efforts to resolve the standoff in Fallujah
peacefully have entered their “final phase” and said he
will not hesitate to launch “a military solution” to
end Sunni insurgents’ hold over the city.

In another city of Iraq’s stormy Sunni Triangle, a rocket
slammed into the Sunubar Hotel in Tikrit late yesterday, killing 15
Iraqis and wounding eight others, hospital officials said.
Insurgents may have been aiming at an American position, which was
targeted by a second rocket. U.S. officials said no American
casualties were reported.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s warning, delivered in a
nationally televised news conference, occurred as U.S. forces
prepare for a showdown with thousands of militants holed up in
Fallujah — the city that has become the focal point of armed
resistance to the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

Allawi appeared to be aiming to prepare the Iraqi public for an
onslaught likely to unleash strong passions, especially among the
country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

He warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an
assault it would be with a “heavy heart,” because
“there will be some loss of innocent lives.”

“But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from
the violence and the terrorists and insurgents,” he said.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders want to put down guerrillas before
vital elections due to be held by Jan. 31, which Allawi insisted
will take place as scheduled.

Yesterday, insurgents in Fallujah fired mortar rounds and
rockets at U.S. Marines, who responded with artillery. U.S.
aircraft also struck suspected rebel positions, Marine officials
said.

Clashes were also reported between U.S. forces and insurgents in
Ramadi, west of Fallujah, killing seven Iraqis and injuring 11,
hospital officials said.

As night fell in the Iraqi capital, the rumble of powerful
explosions could be heard coming from the western edge of the city
but the cause of the blasts could not be determined.

The blast in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, sent frightened
guests of the three-story hotel running into the street, some
barefoot, others with bloodstains on their clothes.

U.S. military officials blamed the attack on “anti-Iraqi
forces,” the term they use for insurgents. They said two
rockets were fired, one of which exploded near an American military
position but caused no damage or casualties.

U.S. officials say Allawi will personally issue the final order
to launch any all-out assault on Fallujah and other Sunni insurgent
strongholds north and west of the capital.

Allawi gave no deadline for talks with Fallujah city leaders to
bear fruit, but he insisted they must hand over foreign fighters
and allow Iraqi security forces to take control of the city.

“We have now entered the final phase of attempts to solve
Fallujah without a major military confrontation. I hope we can
achieve this, but if we cannot, I have no choice but to secure a
military solution,” he added.

Allawi also said authorities have arrested 167 Arab foreign
fighters, who are in Iraq’s custody. He said the government
had identified financiers abroad and would ask other Arab
governments to send them back for prosecution.

Sunni clerics have threatened to call for a nationwide civil
disobedience campaign and to boycott national elections in January
if the Americans attack Fallujah.

Fallujah has become the nexus of an insurgent network that has
carried out numerous car-bombings and beheadings of foreign
hostages since the Bush administration ordered Marines to halt an
offensive against the city in April.

Fallujah is believed to be the headquarters of Jordanian
militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who announced his allegiance to
al-Qaida this month. Al-Zarqawi’s group is believed
responsible for numerous beheadings of foreign hostages, including
Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda, whose body was found Saturday
night in Baghdad wrapped in an American flag.

“The terrorists and insurgents continue to use Fallujah
and the Fallujah people as a shield for their murderous
acts,” Allawi said. “Some of the most incredible crimes
have been committed in Fallujah and out of Fallujah by these
terrorists.”

He said he “cannot stand back and allow such attacks to
continue.”

An offensive against Sunni strongholds would present a major
challenge to Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim politician who
cultivated links to the CIA and the U.S. State Department during
his years in exile in London during Saddam’s regime.

In April, U.S. Marines launched a major assault on Fallujah
after the slaying of four American security contractors, whose
burned and mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets and
hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

However, the assault unleashed a firestorm of criticism among
Iraqis, including key members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing
Council, who complained of hundreds of civilian casualties. The
Marines lifted the siege after three weeks and handed security over
to a brigade of Fallujah residents under the command of
Saddam’s former officers.

The brigade melted away and the city fell under the control of
hardline Sunni clerics and their mujahedeen fighters.

American officers estimate up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam
loyalists and common criminals are holed up in Fallujah. Thousands
more operate in other cities of the Sunni Triangle and in
Baghdad.

In preparation for an offensive, hundreds of British troops have
moved into an area south of Baghdad to free up American forces for
operations west of Baghdad. British press reports said four mortar
shells landed early Sunday at a British camp south of Fallujah. Two
rockets also exploded at the perimeter of the airport in the
southern city of Basra where the British contingent has its
headquarters.

There were no casualties or serious damage in either attack,
British media reports said.

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