Iraqi forces have tightened their control over Fallujah, which had long been a major stronghold for Islamic State (ISIS) militants by capturing the main hospital Saturday, The Washington Post is reporting. Elite Special Forces had stormed the building used as a base for the militants and encountered little resistance.
Fallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to ISIS two and a half years ago.
Colonel Arkan Fadhil, who confirmed this from his base on the outskirts of the city, revealed that the winning back of Fallujah, which was only 40 miles west of the capital Baghdad, would now allow a full concentration of military efforts on Mosul, the capital of the Islamic State.
— The Hill (@thehill) June 18, 2016
The militants are being hit on multiple fronts and because of this, are rapidly losing a lot of ground. But defeating ISIS in Fallujah has come at a brutal cost, with the city in ruins and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
Lt. General Abdelwahab al-Saedi, who was in charge of the Fallujah operation, said over 1,000 militants were killed, most of them bombarded by airstrikes. Iraqi Special Forces have continued to ask for aerial strikes from the U.S.-led coalition on Islamic State areas to complement forces on the ground.
— TheBlaze (@theblaze) June 17, 2016
Iraqi forces say “pockets of resistance” remain in the city, but a large portion of the city is under government control. Earlier in the day, the Iraqi flag had been raised over the local council building in Fallujah. In addition, commanders had also reported overrunning a string of neighborhoods that militants had abandoned during aerial bombardments.
In the surrounding province of Anbar, thousands of civilians once trapped in the city seized the opportunity to flee from their homes. Presently, agencies are working around the clock to ensure that the displaced have basic assistance, but despite all the efforts, supplies continue to drastically dwindle because of the teeming numbers of those running away from the fighting.
There has been increasing concern about civilians caught up in the fighting in Fallujah, which had been at its peak since May. Over 90,000 people were believed trapped in the city and were being used as human shields by the Islamic State, but a hasty retreat of militants from the major checkpoints in Fallujah had allowed residents to leave in high numbers.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has described the situation as “overwhelming.” Spokesman Karl Schembri said the agency did not have the numbers of how many people had escaped but admitted it was total chaos.
“Thousands sleep in the open and are now under the scorching sun with no shelter as temperatures that have climbed up to 100 degrees. Drinking water remains dangerously in short supply.”
Falah al-issawi, a deputy head of the Anbar province, said over 63,000 people had escaped the fighting from Fallujah. The International Organization for Migration pegged the number at 68,000.
These overwhelming numbers join hundreds of thousands that have escaped from other areas like Anbar and Ramadi, that were taken over by Iraqi forces towards the tail end of last year. Many people have not returned to their homes because they believe their homes have been booby-trapped. They have also not been allowed to enter Baghdad because authorities believe ISIS fighters might want to infiltrate the capital through them.
Over 7,000 “civilian” men were detained and around 1,500 of them have been referred to the judiciary for having links to the Islamic State. Another 1,500 are being investigated, the others have been released, but a top cleric has urged security forces to treat civilians with care, urging that “they are our brothers and sisters.”
[Photo by Muhannad Fala’ah/Getty Images]