Residents of the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah began slowly returning on Saturday, as al Qaeda-linked militants and government forces there appear to be preparing for a long standoff.
A tense calm has settled over the city, while sporadic street fighting rattled nearby Ramadi and surrounding areas in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a vast desert region west of Baghdad that was once a major battleground for US troops.
The main route linking Baghdad to Fallujah was packed with vehicles, as residents of the former insurgent bastion began making their way back after fleeing days earlier.
Most of the city's businesses had also reopened on Saturday.
Meanwhile Iraqi troops have taken up positions in and around both cities but have not launched major urban offensives, fearing that likely civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists.
But tribal leaders said a combination of anti-government tribesmen and fighters loyal to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were deployed on the outskirts of Fallujah.
A policeman stationed in Anbar, meanwhile, said operations against militants between the two cities had been temporarily put on hold because of rain overnight, which had made movement difficult.
Gunmen seized all of Fallujah, just 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Baghdad, and parts of Ramadi last week, the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
The extremist militants, emboldened by fellow fighters' gains in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, have tried to position themselves as the champions of Iraqi Sunnis angry at the Shiite-led government over what they see as efforts to marginalise them.
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 United Nations and NGOs have said civilians lack access to essential supplies such as food and fuel because of the crisis, while Washington has piled pressure on Baghdad to focus on political reconciliation, in addition to ongoing military operations.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)
Date created : 2014-01-11