Iraq forces begin assault on ISIL bastion Fallujah
Near Fallujah, Iraq // Iraqi forces battled the ISIL extremist group on Monday in the opening stages of an operation to retake Fallujah – one of the toughest targets yet in Baghdad’s war against the jihadists.
“In the early hours of the morning today, the heroic fighters advanced from different sides” to retake “all the areas occupied by [ISIL] around Fallujah”, Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced on Monday.
Mr Al Abadi said the operation was supposed to start earlier, but “political problems and also the events ... threatening security inside Baghdad delayed some of the preparations”.
ISIL has increasingly turned to its traditional tactic of killing civilians in bombings as it faces battlefield losses, and spokesman Abu Mohammed Al Adnani appeared to acknowledge in a recent statement that the group would probably lose more ground.
Iraq has been hit by a months-long political crisis that has paralysed the legislature, and demonstrators have twice broken into the fortified Green Zone area, storming parliament and Mr Al Abadi’s office.
ISIL has also carried out a series of deadly attacks in and around Baghdad this month.
Iraqi forces had not yet entered the Anbar province city just 50 kilometres from Baghdad, but a witness near Fallujah said they were advancing as aircraft hit targets inside it.
Military sources said early efforts had isolated Fallujah from Karma, an area to the north-west where ISIL is still present.
ISIL, meanwhile, issued a statement claiming it had repelled “a wide attack” by Iraqi forces and destroyed multiple tanks and bulldozers.
Mr Al Abadi’s announcement settled the issue of which ISIL-held city Iraq should seek to retake next – a subject of debate among Iraqi officials and international forces helping Baghdad battle the extremists.
Iraq’s second city Mosul was the US military’s recommended target, but powerful militias may have helped force the issue by deploying reinforcements to the Fallujah area in preparation for an assault.
On Sunday, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command warned civilians still in Fallujah – estimated to number in the tens of thousands – to leave.
It warned families that could not depart to raise a white flag over their location and stay away from ISIL headquarters and gatherings.
Officials said several dozen families had fled the city, but ISIL has sought to prevent civilians from leaving, as have forces on the government side, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
“Aid has not reached Fallujah since the government recaptured the nearby city of Ramadi ... with the supply routes cut off by the Iraqi forces and armed groups, preventing civilians from leaving,” UNHCR said.
Anti-government fighters seized Fallujah in January 2014 after security forces withdrew during unrest sparked by the government’s destruction of a protest camp, and the city later became one of the group’s main strongholds.
Fallujah and Mosul, the capital of the northern province of Nineveh, are the last two major cities ISIL holds in Iraq.
Iraqi forces have regained significant ground in Anbar province in recent months, but as the extremists are pushed back they are stepping up their deadly bombings.
Fallujah has a long history as an insurgent bastion, and US forces launched two major assaults on the city in 2004, in which they saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.
Iraqi forces have the advantage of greater knowledge of the area, especially if they employ pro-government Anbar tribal fighters in the battle, but they lack the training and enormous firepower that American forces could bring to bear.
ISIL overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, and Iraqi forces performed dismally during the initial offensive despite significantly outnumbering the extremists.
But the “caliphate” the extremist group subsequently proclaimed has been shrinking as anti-ISIL forces score major victories in both Iraq and Syria, where the group had also seized significant territory.
Several key ISIL leaders, including its number two and the top military commander for Anbar, have been killed in recent air strikes by the US-led coalition.
Coalition spokesman Steve Warren said on social media that 21 strikes had been carried out on ISIL targets in and around Fallujah since May 17.
* Agence-France Presse
Updated: May 23, 2016 04:00 AM