Running away with hoarded food, ISIL is losing the battle for Fallujah
BAGHDAD // Four weeks into the battle for Fallujah, ISIL’s resistance is crumbling as Iraqi security forces took the town hall near the city centre and thousands of trapped civilians managed to escape.
Units of the elite counterterrorism forces on Friday wrested control of a government complex including the town hall and intelligence services offices from ISIL, said Abdel-Wahaab Al Saadi, the commander in charge of the Fallujah campaign.
Prime minister Haider Al Abadi went on state television to announce that his forces were in control of the city, except for a few small pockets.
“We promised you the liberation of Fallujah and we retook it,” Mr Al Abadi said.
On Thursday, ISIL abandoned key checkpoints in the Halabsa and Albo Al Wan neighbourhoods and withdrew deeper into the city, opening a vital exit route for the trapped civilians.
“In the early morning we noticed the sudden disappearance of ISIL fighters from the streets. Neighbours saw them evacuate the checkpoints, driving their vehicles loaded with food and fuel.
“The news started spreading quickly and we prepared to leave,” a 69-year old man told the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) after reaching safety.
ISIL prevented residents from leaving even before the fighting began, and were using between 50,000 and 90,000 civilians as human shields when the Iraqi security forces launched their attack on May 23, according to estimates by humanitarian organisations.
The majority are now believed to have fled Fallujah, allowing the US-led coalition and the small Iraqi air force to intensify their air campaign.
“The reason for the latest advance is that we have evacuated most of the civilians, and because of that we can now -increase the air strikes,” an Iraqi officer responsible for coordinating air strikes on Fallujah told The National.
He also said the coalition had launched 48 air strikes against insurgents in the city between Thursday morning and yesterday afternoon.
Aid agencies are now struggling to provide food and shelter for the flood of recently arrived city residents, with many families forced to camp out in the open at makeshift refugee camps.
Civilians have borne the brunt of a months-long siege on Fallujah that deprived the city of food, clean water and medicine, as ISIL fighters hoarded supplies. Many of those attempting to flee the city were killed and injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by ISIL. Aid agencies worry that those most in need of help are still trapped.
“We’re extremely concerned that the most vulnerable — pregnant women, the elderly, sick persons and people with disabilities — have been unable to come out and they are the ones who need aid most after months under siege with no food, no water and no medical aid,” said Karl Schembri, spokesman for the NRC, which is helping people who have escaped.
ISIL fighters continue to mount a fierce defence of the city and heavy fighting lies ahead before the extremists are completely driven out.
Fallujah was the first city to fall to the extremist group in 2014, and it has been a hotbed of extremist insurgency in Iraq since the US invaded the country in 2003.
By Friday afternoon, ISIL had launched three suicide attacks against the elite counterterrorism units, security sources said. The attacks were repelled at the cost of two wounded. Explosive-laden cars and lorries have been a daily menace at Fallujah, and such attacks can kill dozens.
The militants have also riddled the city with IEDs, booby-trapping houses and mining roads. They have dug a network of tunnels to shelter them from air bombardment and to launch ambushes on advancing troops.
The Iraqi officer estimated that no more than 300 ISIL fighters remained alive in Fallujah, but these were expected to fight to the death as they make a last stand in the areas of the city still under their control.
Once the city has been taken, the army will turn its attention to retaking other areas still under ISIL control such as Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The army this week launche a renewed offensive near the northern town of Makhmour to take nearby Qayyarah across the Tigris, a vital staging post for an attack on Mosul.