BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's prime minister appealed on Thursday to Iraqis to postpone weekly Friday protests so that security forces can focus on a key military operation aimed at retaking the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State group.
For months, anti-government protesters, mainly followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have been holding protests every Friday outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone and in other provinces, demanding reform to a political system widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual.
To protect the demonstrators from militant attacks, extra security forces are usually deployed around the Green Zone and other key areas, blocking major roads and paralyzing parts of the capital. In recent weeks, demonstrators knocked down the concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone and broke into Iraq's parliament building and government offices, plunging the country into a prolonged political crisis.
"All our security forces are preoccupied with liberating Fallujah and nearby areas, and imposing pressure on them in Baghdad and other provinces to protect the demonstrations will affect this issue (the Fallujah offensive)," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said during a visit to Fallujah Operation Command.
Al-Abadi called on Iraqis to be "vigilant and cautious as they (IS militants) will try to carry out crimes and massacres against civilians."
Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops, Iraqi government forces launched the long-awaited military offensive late Sunday.
The city, located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, has been under the militants' control since January 2014. The forces are now focusing on tightening their grip around Fallujah by dislodging the militants from key areas, including the town of Garma, east of Fallujah, which is considered the main supply line for the militants.
Fallujah was the site of two bloody battles against U.S. forces in 2004. It is part of the so-called "Islamic Caliphate" the militants declared in territories under their control in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
IS still controls key areas in Iraq, including the second-largest northern city of Mosul.