BAGHDAD -- Iraq's interim prime minister yesterday warned that efforts to resolve the standoff in Fallujah peacefully have entered their "final phase" and said he will not hesitate to launch "a military solution" to end Sunni insurgents' hold over the city.
In another city of Iraq's stormy Sunni Triangle, a rocket slammed into the Sunubar Hotel in Tikrit late yesterday, killing 15 Iraqis and wounding eight, hospital officials said. Insurgents may have been aiming at a US position, which was targeted by a second rocket. US officials said no American casualties were reported.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's warning, delivered in a nationally televised news conference, occurred as US forces prepare for a showdown with thousands of militants holed up in Fallujah -- the city that has become the focal point of armed resistance to the Americans and their Iraqi allies.
Allawi appeared to be aiming to prepare the Iraqi public for an onslaught likely to unleash strong passions, especially among the country's Sunni Muslim minority.
He warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an assault it would be with a "heavy heart," because "there will be some loss of innocent lives."
"But I . . . owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents," he said.
US and Iraqi commanders want to put down guerrillas before vital elections due to be held by Jan. 31, which Allawi insisted will take place as scheduled.
Yesterday, insurgents in Fallujah fired mortar rounds and rockets at US Marines, who responded with artillery. US aircraft also struck suspected rebel positions, Marine officials said.
Clashes were also reported between US forces and insurgents in Ramadi, west of Fallujah, killing seven Iraqis and injuring 11, hospital officials said.
As night fell in the Iraqi capital, the rumble of powerful explosions could be heard coming from the western edge of the city but the cause of the blasts could not be determined.
The blast in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, sent frightened hotel guests hotel running into the street, some barefoot, others with bloodstains on their clothes.
US military officials blamed the attack on "anti-Iraqi forces," the term they use for insurgents. They said two rockets were fired, one of which exploded near an American military position but caused no damage or casualties.
US officials say Allawi will personally issue the final order to launch any all-out assault on Fallujah and other Sunni insurgent strongholds north and west of the capital.
Allawi gave no deadline for talks with Fallujah city leaders to bear fruit, but he insisted they must hand over foreign fighters and allow Iraqi security forces to take control of the city.
"We have now entered the final phase of attempts to solve Fallujah without a major military confrontation," he added.
Allawi also said authorities have arrested 167 Arab foreign fighters, who are in Iraq's custody. He said the government had identified financiers abroad and would ask other Arab governments to send them back for prosecution.
Sunni clerics have threatened to call for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign and to boycott national elections in January if the Americans attack Fallujah.
Fallujah has become the nexus of an insurgent network that has carried out numerous car-bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages since the Bush administration ordered Marines to halt an offensive against the city in April.
Fallujah is believed to be the headquarters of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who announced his allegiance to Al Qaeda last month.
Zarqawi's group is believed responsible for numerous beheadings of foreign hostages, including Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda, whose body was found Saturday night in Baghdad wrapped in an American flag.
"The terrorists and insurgents continue to use Fallujah and the Fallujah people as a shield for their murderous acts," Allawi said, adding that he "cannot stand back and allow such attacks to continue."
In preparation for an offensive, hundreds of British troops have moved into an area south of Baghdad to free up American forces for operations west of Baghdad.
Fresh US troops from the Louisiana-based 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade were also arriving in Baghdad, raising the number of American forces there to an estimated 40,000 by today. Units slated to depart were being held back until after the elections, swelling the overall number of US troops in Iraq to around 142,000, the highest level since 2003.