BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister appealed on Thursday to Iraqis to postpone the weekly protests due the following day so that security forces can focus on a key military operation aimed at retaking the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State group.
For months, anti-government protesters, mainly followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have been holding protests every Friday outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone and in other provinces, demanding reform to a political system widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual.
To protect the demonstrators from militant attacks, extra security forces are usually deployed around the Green Zone and other key areas, blocking major roads and paralyzing parts of the capital. In recent weeks, demonstrators knocked down the concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone and broke into Iraq's parliament building and government offices, plunging the country into a prolonged political crisis.
"All our security forces are preoccupied with liberating Fallujah and nearby areas, and imposing pressure on them in Baghdad and other provinces to protect the demonstrations will affect this issue (the Fallujah offensive)," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said during a visit to Fallujah Operation Command.
Al-Abadi called on Iraqis to be "vigilant and cautious as they (ISIS militants) will try to carry out crimes and massacres against civilians."
Later Thursday, officials reported that 12 people were killed in separate attacks in the Iraqi capital and nearby towns. The deadliest attack took place in Tarmiya, a town 30 miles north of Baghdad, where a booby-trapped house exploded as security forces entered during a search, killing five troops and wounding three others, the police said.
A bomb went off in a commercial area of Baghdad's southern Abu Disher neighborhood, killing three shoppers and wounding 10 people, the police also said. Two other bombs struck in a commercial area in the northern district of Saba al-Bor and the town of Mishahda, north of Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 16.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.
Late on Sunday, Iraqi government forces launched the long-awaited military offensive on Fallujah, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops.
The city, located about 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been under the ISIS militants' control since January 2014. The Iraqi forces are now focusing on tightening their grip around the town by dislodging the militants from key areas, including the town of Garma, east of Fallujah, which is considered the main supply line for Fallujah.
Addressing worries expressed by international humanitarian aid organizations over the safety of civilians trapped inside Fallujah, al-Abadi said that security forces' "main concern is how to protect the civilians and to differentiate between the terrorists and innocent civilians."
In an update issued on Thursday, the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid group working with refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq, said 41 families have fled from the outskirts of Fallujah in the past day, bringing the number of escaped families to 114. It estimated that 50,000 civilians are still trapped inside.
The "newly arrived are in state of shock," Karl Schembri, NRC regional media adviser, said in a statement.
Schembri added that initial reports indicate that residents inside Fallujah are in a desperate conditions and seeking a safe way out. The "humanitarian situation is getting worse due to the lack of safety, food, medicine and electricity," he said.
Fallujah was the site of two bloody battles against U.S. forces in 2004. It is part of the so-called "Islamic Caliphate" the militants declared in territories under their control in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
ISIS still controls key areas in Iraq, including the second-largest northern city of Mosul.