Iraq Says Battle To Liberate Fallujah From ISIS Has Begun

The Iraqi Army declared on Saturday that the operation to take back the center of Fallujah from ISIS has begun.

The major city center is considered to be the ISIS stronghold in the western province of Anbar. The Iraqi Defence Ministry says its Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-hardened units, have surrounded Fallujah and completed the first phase of the operation to liberate the city. The U.S.-led coalition has hit the city with constant airstrikes for the past four days, and Maher Al-Bilawi, the commander of the ISIS forces in the city, was among 70 terrorists killed.

Government forces launched a huge offensive against occupied Fallujah on May 22, with the ground forces being supported by U.S. airstrikes. Hundreds of civilians fled the city, located about 37 miles (60 km) west of the capital of Baghdad, in the early hours of the morning on Friday as fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS fighters intensified. Security forces evacuated many civilians away from the war zones after two years living under the brutal reign of the terrorist group, but around 50,000 civilians are still trapped inside.

”Phase one is over and we have achieved our objectives,” Brigadier Rasool Yahya, a defence ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “Our forces have isolated and surrounded the city of Fallujah. We are advancing on and closing in… We are ready and the presence of civilians inside the city could delay us. The enemy left the outskirts and stationed itself inside Fallujah.”

Around 350,000 civilians live in and around the sprawling city on the Euphrates River, which has been occupied by ISIS since January of 2014. Both Iraqi and Coalition leaders have accused the Islamic State of using civilians as human shields, according to the Telegraph.

“As Iraqi forces close in on Fallujah, they are facing what is essentially a city-wide hostage crisis. Some 1,700 Isil fighters are believed to be holding perhaps 50,000 civilians in the centre of the city, hoping that government troops and their Shia militia allies will refrain from launching an all-out assault for fear of killing innocents. ‘It has become one of the world’s largest prisons,’ said Issa al-Issawi, the exiled mayor of Fallujah. ‘They are just waiting for us to save them.'”

Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the Western coalition, echoed these sentiments by saying that ISIS terrorists “are holding the civilian population captive so that they can hide behind them.” The Telegraph report stated that while people were being evacuated to safety, this was mostly around the outskirts of the city where ISIS control is weaker.

“Isil is escalating its violence as its reign over Fallujah reaches a bloody denouement. Men and boys who refuse to fight for the jihadists are being executed, said the United Nations, while women and children are being dragged from their homes to be used as human shields.”

Fallujah is one of only two major Iraqi cities controlled by ISIS, the other being Mosul. Liberating the city would be a major victory for Syria, Iraq, and the coalition. Despite the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the top commander in charge of the Fallujah operation, remained optimistic about the Iraqi forces’ chance of success, according to RTE News.

“CTS forces, Anbar emergency police and tribal fighters… reached Tareq and Mazraa camps,” in the south and east of Fallujah, he said. “These forces will break into Fallujah in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” he added, using an acronym for IS.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces, which include military, police, and militias, have been deployed to retake the city, supported from the air by coalition forces. On Saturday, Al Arabiya news channel reported that ISIS had retaliated with a suicide car bombing. Col. Warren has stated that 20 airstrikes in the besieged Fallujah had severely damaged the militants’ fighting positions and gun placements.

[Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images]