BAGHDAD — Iraq's government is holding off on waging an all-out offensive to retake two key cities from al-Qaida because of fears that civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists, analysts and military officials said Thursday.
More violence flared in Baghdad, where a suicide bomber killed 21 people at an army recruiting center in a clear effort to demoralize the military.
Al-Qaida-linked fighters overran parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Sunni-dominated Anbar province last week, seizing control of police stations and military posts, freeing prisoners and setting up their own checkpoints.
The United States, whose troops fought bloody battles in the cities, has ruled out sending its troops back in, but has been delivering missiles to bolster Iraqi forces.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and withdrew in 2011. Both countries tried but failed to negotiate plans to keep at least several thousand U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the deadline to maintain security.
Vice President Joe Biden has spoken to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki twice this week, voicing support for his government's efforts to regain control of the cities and urging him to continue talks with local, tribal and national leaders.
Iran, too, is watching the unrest with alarm, since it shares U.S. concerns about al-Qaida-linked militants taking firmer root in its neighbor. It has offered to supply military equipment and advisers, should Baghdad ask.