BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi troops and allied tribesmen killed 57 Islamist militants in Anbar province on Monday, the Defence Ministry said, in advance of a possible assault on the Sunni rebel-held city of Falluja.
There was no independent verification of the toll among the militants, said to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadi group also fighting in Syria.
ISIL militants and other Sunni groups angered by the Shi‘ite-led government overran Falluja and parts of the nearby city of Ramadi in the western province of Anbar on January 1.
The Defence Ministry statement said most of the 57 militants had been killed in the outskirts of Ramadi, giving few details.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has held back from an all-out assault on Falluja to give time for a negotiated way out of the standoff, but mediation efforts appear to have failed.
Troops intensified shelling of Falluja late on Sunday and security officials said a ground assault would follow soon.
Maliki has appealed for international support and weapons to fight al Qaeda, although critics say his own policies towards Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni community are at least partly to blame for reviving an insurgency that had climaxed in 2006-07.
Last year was the bloodiest since 2008, according to the United Nations, and the violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count has said more than 1,000 people were killed in January.
Four car bombs targeting Shi‘ite areas killed at least 14 people on Monday, police said. Two of the bombs blew up in the town of Mahmudiya, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, killing eight people. Two more blasts occurred in the capital.
Separately, police said they found four bodies, one of them a woman‘s, shot in the head or chest in southwestern Baghdad.
Two soldiers were killed in clashes with gunmen in Baquba, a city 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, a military source said.
No group has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attacks but Shi‘ites are often targeted by Sunni militants who have been regaining strength, especially in Anbar, which borders Syria.
Al Qaeda said on Monday it had no links with ISIL, a group whose precursors fought U.S. troops in Iraq and which is now playing a powerful but divisive role in Syria’s civil war, as well as driving the insurgency in Iraq.
Reporting by Kareem Raheem; Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Isabel Coles and Alistair Lyon