Iraqi special forces are on the outskirts of Fallujah, the army said, marking a new phase in efforts to take the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL), and sparking fears for about 50,000 civilians trapped there.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and fighters – made up of military, police and militias, and backed by air power from a US-led coalition – last week launched an offensive to retake the city. T he arrival of the counter-terrorism service (CTS) may signal that an all-out assault is imminent.
Abdelwahab al Saadi, the Iraqi army commander in charge of the operation, said on Sunday that several large contingents of anti-terrorism forces, police, and militia fighters had now reached two military camps near the city, and were ready to attack.
“These forces will break into Fallujah in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL, which is also known as ISIS.
The counter-terrorism force said they had the city completely surrounded. Iraqi officials claimed gains against ISIL but there was no way to independently verify that.
“There is resistence but we are crushing it very quickly … we have a momentum from different fronts,” General Abdelamir al-Shimary, from Baghdad’s Operations Command, said.
Fallujah, 50 km west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in ISIL hands.
The operation has come at a human cost, rights groups said, with thousands of civilians trapped between ISIL fighters and the advancing Iraqi army and allied Shia militia.
Some 50,000 people were still stuck in the centre of the city by Sunday, struggling with dwindling water and food supplies. The UN said it had reports of people starving to death and others and being killed for refusing to fight for ISIL.
“We have dramatic reports of the increase of the number of executions of men and older boys, refusing to fight on behalf of ISIL,” Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.
About a thousand ISIL fighters still in the city were accused of using civilians as human shields, but UNHCR also said Iraqi forces had blocked supply routes, preventing civilians from getting out.
Hundreds of families were able to flee the city on Friday with the help of government forces, but the majority remain trapped, aid groups said.
“We are receiving hundreds of displaced Iraqis from the outskirts of Fallujah who are totally exhausted, afraid and hungry,” Nasr Muflahi, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said.
“Thousands more remain trapped in the centre of Fallujah, cut off from aid and any form of protection.”
Fallujah, a predominantly Sunni city, fell out of government control even before ISIL swept through Iraq’s heartland in June 2014, and is one of the group’s most iconic strongholds.
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