BAGHDAD - Iraqi government forces battling al-Qaida-linked militants intensified air strikes and artillery fire on the rebel-held city of Falluja on Sunday, and at least seven people were killed, according to hospital officials and tribal leaders.

Religious and tribal leaders in the city, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, said they feared an imminent assault by the army to expel militants and end a three-week standoff that has driven thousands of people from their homes.

Iraqi security forces have set up a loose cordon around Falluja and have clashed sporadically with insurgents inside. But they have held off from an all-out offensive, to give community leaders and tribesmen time to convince the gunmen to withdraw.

"There is no time left for talks and we're afraid a military solution is looming," said a local cleric in Falluja, the scene of two major battles with US troops in 2004. "A third Falluja battle is at the doors".

On Sunday morning, al-Qaida-linked militants attacked an army post in southern Falluja, seizing two Humvee vehicles and destroying a third, local sources said.

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