Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called Wednesday for residents of the conflict-hit province of Anbar to "take a stand" against anti-government fighters, as the UN warned of worsening displacement.
His call came as government forces pressed an offensive against militants, including those affiliated with the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who overran parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi weeks ago.
Diplomats have urged Baghdad to foster political reconciliation to undercut support for the militants, but with elections looming in April, Maliki and others have taken a hard line and focused on wide-ranging security operations.
"I ask the people of the province -- the tribes, the notables, and all who live there -- to be ready to take a stand, to take serious action against those dirty people, without making any sacrifices," Maliki said in his weekly televised address.
He added, referring to Fallujah, another city in Anbar that is entirely in the control of anti-government fighters: "It is time to finish this subject, and end the presence of gangs in this city, and save the people from their evil."
Parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, both former insurgent bastions in Anbar west of Baghdad, have been in the hands of militants for weeks, the first time anti-government fighters have exercised such open control in Iraqi cities since the peak of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
Soldiers, policemen and SWAT forces have combined with pro-government tribal allies in an offensive that continued Wednesday against gunmen holding several neighbourhoods of Ramadi, an AFP journalist in the city said.
The army said in a statement that 13 militants were killed in firefights there.
In Fallujah, meanwhile, shelling in southern and central neighbourhoods left one person dead and 10 people wounded on Wednesday, a medic said.
Residents of the city blame the army for the shelling, but defence officials say the military is not responsible.
The government has tweaked its language in recent days from referring to all anti-government fighters in Anbar simply as Al-Qaeda, and now uses terms such as gangs.
And while Fallujah residents and tribal sheikhs have said ISIL has tightened its grip on the city in recent days, several other militant groups and anti-government tribes have also been involved in fighting government forces in both cities in Anbar.
Iraqi security forces, meanwhile, have recruited their own tribal allies to fight alongside them.The United Nations warned on Tuesday of "an exponential increase in the number of displaced and stranded families", with more than 22,000 families having registered as internally displaced.
The UN said the actual figure was likely to be higher, as not all those who fled had registered.
It said of those who had left, most had found refuge elsewhere in Anbar, but some had gone as far afield as the northern Kurdish region.
Fighting originally erupted in the Ramadi area on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni Arab protest camp.
It spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.
Violence elsewhere in the country on Wednesday left eight people dead, security and medical officials said.
The deadliest incident occurred in Baghdad's western outskirts, where three mortar shells slammed into a residential neighbourhood, killing at least three people.
Attacks in and around the restive northern cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk killed five others in all.
The latest violence brought to more than 700 the number of people killed so far this month, according to an AFP tally.
By comparison, fewer than 250 people died as a result of violence in all of January 2013.