BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's interim prime minister on Wednesday threatened military action against the main insurgent stronghold of Fallujah if residents don't hand over Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's (search) warning came as government negotiators and Fallujah (search) representatives were trying to hammer out a deal to restore government control over the city, seen as the hardest of the militant-held regions to crack.
The chief negotiator representing Fallujah said Wednesday the talks are in their final phase but differences remain over handing over insurgents wanted by Iraqi and U.S. authorities on criminal charges. Many in the city view the Iraqis fighting in the insurgency as heroic "mujahideen," or holy warriors.
Fallujah, in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, is also believed to be a stronghold of al-Zarqawi's feared Tawhid and Jihad (search) group, which has kidnapped and beheaded numerous foreigners and has carried out a number of bloody bombing attacks.
"If they do not turn in al-Zarqawi and his group, we will carry out operations in Fallujah," Allawi told a meeting of the 100-member interim National Council on Wednesday. "We will not be lenient."
"I would like to reassert once more that the option of using force is a last resort for the government to settle the security situation," he said. "We shall remain prepared to deal positively with any initiative to disarm and enter the political process."
But he warned of the likelihood of more bombings and other insurgent attacks. "The more we crack down on terrorist havens, the more these strikes are going to increase," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have used a mix of diplomacy and force to try to regain control of insurgent enclaves in time to hold nationwide elections in January. Troops swept into the militant stronghold of Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, earlier this month and have been carrying out smaller-scale raids in recent days in other areas.
In Fallujah, a city of 300,000, U.S. forces have staged weeks of "precision strikes" aimed buildings believed to be safehouses of al-Zarqawi's network and its associates — even as negotiations have continued.
Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, fell under the control of hardline Islamic clerics and their armed followers after Marines ended a bloody three-week siege in late April.
"Fallujah of course is an honest city but it has been manipulated by a deviant bunch that wants to harm Iraq," Allawi said.
He promised to show council members photographs and documents confirming terrorist activity in the city and other insurgent strongholds.
"You can see for yourself the evil of these people and their ongoing fight to strike Iraq," Allawi said. He gave no details.
In his comments Wednesday, Fallujah chief negotiator Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili did not mention al-Zarqawi specifically or address demands for the Jordanian's handover.
"There are only a handful of Arab fighters in Fallujah. When a deal is struck, they will just leave the city," he told the Associated Press by telephone from Fallujah.
Al-Jumeili said city leaders are concerned over how insurgents will be treated if Iraqi National Guardsmen take control. "The people of Fallujah want guarantees that they will not be attacked by the National Guardsmen," he said.
He said it was agreed that the National Guard units taking over security in Fallujah would include natives of the city and that residents whose relatives have been killed or injured or whose property has been damaged would receive compensation. There was no immediate government or U.S. comment.
Still to be ironed out is what happens to specific individuals wanted by Iraqi and U.S. military authorities to face criminal charges, al-Jumeili said. They presumably include the killers of four U.S. contractors in March, whose deaths led to the three-week siege of Fallujah in April.
"They are outlaws to them but they are mujahedeen to us," he said.
It is not known how many foreign fighters are in Fallujah and how many Iraqis have worked with al-Zarqawi. Fallujah residents say foreign Arab fighters number no more than 25 — a figure contested by the Americans.
Al-Jumeili said he last met government representatives Monday evening and that the government was waiting for the American response to the negotiations.
The continued violence, however, has led to some grumbling by residents who now privately speak of their wish for the mujahedeen to leave and spare the city further turmoil.
Already, vast swathes of Fallujah facing U.S. Marines' positions are deserted for fear of renewed fighting, making way for the insurgents to fortify their positions.