Over 50,000 civilians trapped as Iraq troops wage fierce fight to wrest Fallujah from Islamic State

Elite Iraqi special forces began their push Monday into Fallujah, expecting to encounter the stiffest resistance yet in the campaign to free territory from the Islamic State group.

The city 40 miles (65 km) west of Baghdad has been under militant control longer than any other part of Iraq, and Islamic State fighters have had more than two years to dig in. Networks of tunnels like those found in other Islamic State-held territory have already been discovered in its northeastern outskirts.

The Iraqi troops, also known as the counterterrorism forces, are leading the assault on Fallujah, slowly moving up from the southern edge in a column of armored Humvees.

Their advance is expected to be slow because tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Fallujah and hidden bombs are believed to have been left throughout the city, according to special forces commanders at the scene. They expect fierce resistance from the jihadis, who have nowhere to run.

“This is the decisive battle for us and for Daesh,” said Gen. Saad Harbiya head of Fallujah operations for the Iraqi army, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The offensive, supported by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, was launched a week ago. In that time, other wings of Iraq’s security forces have cleared the city’s edges. Shiite militia forces under the government umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the federal police lead operations that have taken back 80 percent of the territory around Fallujah, according to Iraqi Maj. Dhia Thamir.

The predominantly Sunni city in Anbar province is one of the last major Islamic State strongholds in Iraq. The extremist group still controls territory in the north and west, as well as the second-largest city of Mosul.

Harbiya said Fallujah “is like the Kaaba” for the Islamic State group, referring to the most sacred Muslim site in the world in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The 500-700 Islamic State fighters holed up in Fallujah are expected to be some of the group’s best-trained, a special forces commander at the scene said. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The counterterrorism forces started pushing into Fallujah from its southern edge at dawn, said Brig. Haider al-Obeidi. He described the fighting as “fierce,” with Islamic State deploying snipers and releasing a volley of mortar rounds on the Iraqi forces.

Humanitarian groups say that as the violence intensifies, their concerns for civilians trapped inside Fallujah mount.

“With every moment that passes, their need for safe exits becomes more critical,” said Nasr Muflahi, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an international humanitarian group active in Anbar province.

In past operations, Iraq’s Shiite militia forces have been accused of committing abuses against civilians in majority Sunni towns and cities. Sunni lawmakers already have accused the security forces of using indiscriminate force that has endangered the more than 50,000 civilians estimated to be still inside Fallujah.

Shiite militia commanders have routinely rejected the accusations.

“The troops have been recommended to respect families and treat them gently,” said Hadi al-Amiri, the Shiite militia commander who also heads the Badr Organization political party, while overseeing operations outside Fallujah.

Islamic State extremists, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings Monday in and around the capital that killed at least 24 people.

Islamic State has been behind many of the recent deadly attacks, and the bombings show the group’s enduring ability to launch operations despite territorial losses. Iraqi officials say the bombings are an attempt by the militants to distract the security forces’ attention from the front lines.

“By launching such attacks, the militants aimed at thwarting our determination and resolution to continue with our victories in Fallujah,” said Arkan Jabbar, a soldier manning a checkpoint in Baghdad not far from where one of the blasts hit.

The deadliest of the blasts took place in the northern, Shiite-dominated Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a checkpoint next to a commercial area, killing eight civilians and three soldiers. The explosion also wounded up to 14 people, a police officer said.

A suicide car bomber struck an outdoor market in the town of Tarmiyah, about 50 km (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing seven civilians and three policemen, another police officer said, adding that 24 people were wounded in that bombing.

And in Baghdad’s eastern Shiite Sadr City district, a bomb on a motorcycle went off at a market, killing three and wounding 10, police said. Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures, and all the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.

In an online statement, Islamic State said it was responsible for the attacks, saying they targeted members of the Shiite militias and a government office. The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the statement but it was posted on a militant website commonly used by extremists.

The drive to recapture the first city to be lost from government control in 2014 came as fighting also raged in neighboring Syria, leaving huge numbers of civilians exposed.

Led by the elite counterterrorism service (CTS), Iraq’s best trained and most seasoned fighting unit, the forces pushed into Fallujah before dawn, commanders said.

“Iraqi forces entered Fallujah under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation, and supported by artillery and tanks,” said Lt. Gen. Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander of the operation.

Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against Islamic State in Iraq, said the jihadis had so far resisted mostly with snipers, booby-traps and suicide car bombs.

The forces have not yet ventured into the center but they recaptured some areas in a southern suburb and took up positions on the eastern and northern fringes.

The involvement of the elite CTS marks the start of a phase of urban combat in a city where in 2004 U.S. forces fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.

The week-old operation had previously focused on retaking rural areas around Fallujah.

It had been led by the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which is dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias.

They were still in action Monday, attempting to clear an area northwest of Fallujah called Saqlawiya, officers said.

Only a few hundred families have managed to slip out of the Fallujah area ahead of the assault on the city, with an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped inside, sparking fears the jihadis could try to use them as human shields.

The only families who were able to flee so far lived in outlying areas and took serious risks to reach camps, while those in the heart of Fallujah have been unable to leave.

In Amriyat al-Fallujah, a government-controlled town to the south of the jihadi stronghold, civilians trickled in, starving and exhausted after walking through the countryside for hours at night, dodging Islamic Statee surveillance.

“I just decided to risk everything. I was either going to save my children or die with my children,” said Ahmad Sabih, 40, who reached the NRC-run camp early on Sunday.

A senior police commander said his forces had assisted 800 civilians fleeing areas north of Fallujah on Monday.

Fallujah is one of just two major urban centers in Iraq still held by Islamic State.

They also hold Mosul, the country’s second city and de-facto jihadi capital in Iraq, east of which Kurdish-led forces wrapped up a two-day operation on Monday.

Nine villages were retaken from in the operation, which peshmerga officers said left 140 jihadi fighters and four peshmerga dead.

The jihadis holed up in Fallujah are believed to number around 1,000.

What resources Islamic State will invest in the defense of Fallujah remains unclear. The city has been isolated for months but it looms large in modern jihadi mythology.

Fallujah is expected to give Iraqi forces one of their toughest battles yet but Islamic State has appeared weakened in recent months and has been losing territory consistently in the past 12 months.

The government says Islamic State now controls around 14 percent of the national territory, down from 40 percent in 2014.

However, as the “caliphate” it declared two years ago unravels, Islamic State has been reverting to its old tactics of sowing terror by targeting civilians.

A fresh wave of bomb attacks struck the Baghdad area on Monday, killing 11 people in three separate blasts.

In northern Syria, clashes raged around the flash-point town of Marea as Islamic State pressed an assault on nonjihadi rebels.

The onslaught has threatened tens of thousands of people, many of them already displaced from other areas, who have sought refuge in camps near the Turkish border.

Gerry Simpson, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AFP 165,000 civilians were now stuck between Islamic State fighters, Kurdish forces and the border.

“What more does the U.S., EU and U.N. need to call on Turkey to give these people refuge,” he asked.

In divided Aleppo city, 15 people, including two children, were killed in the rebel-controlled eastern neighborhoods in heavy bombardment on Monday morning, the civil defense said.

Source: Japan Time