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Al-Maliki hinted at a possible pardon for militants who abandon the fight, saying Wednesday that his government will "open a new page to settle their cases so that they won’t be fuel for the war that is led by al-Qaida." It is unclear if this represented a formal amnesty offer, however, and hard-line Sunni fighters are unlikely to have faith in the Shiite-led government’s assurances.
Human Rights Watch said Iraqi forces appear to have used mortar fire indiscriminately in civilian areas in recent days to try to dislodge militants in Anbar and that some neighborhoods were targeted with mortar shells and gunfire even though there was no sign of an al-Qaida presence there.
The New York-based group said its allegations were based on multiple accounts provided by Anbar residents.
It also warned that a government blockade of Ramadi and Fallujah is limiting civilian access to food, water and fuel, and that "unlawful methods of fighting by all sides" has caused civilian casualties and major property damage.
Several approaches to Fallujah have been blocked by Iraqi troops, and only families with children were being allowed to leave with "extreme difficulty" through two checkpoints, the rights group said. It added that single men were being denied exit from the city.
"Civilians have been caught in the middle in Anbar, and the government appears to be doing nothing to protect them," said the group’s Mideast director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
Iraqi government officials could not immediately be reached for comment to respond to the rights group’s allegations.
The warning came a day after the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross voiced concerns about growing humanitarian threats in the area as food and water supplies start to run out.
Emergency shipments of food, water, blankets and other essential items have begun reaching families displaced by the fighting, the U.N. said. Some of the initial supplies were delivered to families left stranded in schools and mosques in Fallujah.
More than 11,000 families have been displaced by the fighting, according to U.N. records.
The Baghdad bomber detonated his explosives outside the recruiting center in the capital’s central Allawi neighborhood in the morning as volunteers waited to register inside, a police official said.
In addition to the 21 dead, at least 35 people were wounded, he added, and a hospital official confirmed the casualty numbers. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suicide attacks are the hallmark of al-Qaida’s Iraq branch, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The recruiting center attack appears to be in retaliation for the military’s response to the insurgency and an effort to dissuade potential new recruits from bolstering the Iraqi army’s ranks.
It followed an attack late Wednesday by gunmen who struck at army barracks in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing at least 12 soldiers.
Al-Qaida militants, emboldened by their gains in the civil war in neighboring Syria, have sought to position themselves as the champions of Iraq’s disenchanted Sunnis against the Shiite-led government, even though major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose the group’s extremist ideology and are, in some cases, fighting against it.
Sectarian tensions have been rising for months in the province as Sunnis protested what they perceive as discrimination and random arrests by the Shiite-led central government. Violence spiked after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the government’s dismantling of a year-old Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, the provincial capital.
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