NEAR FALLUJA, Iraq, June 4, (Agencies): Iraqi forces gained new ground from the Islamic State group Saturday in a key area west of the jihadist bastion of Falluja, security sources said. Fighters from the army, the police and from the Hashed al-Shaabi — a paramilitary organisation dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias — entered the centre of Saqlawiya.
The town lies around 10 kms (six miles) northwest of Falluja and control of the rural area around it is key to cutting off the city which Iraqi forces are trying to retake. “The Iraqi army’s 14th division and Hashed al-Shaabi stormed the centre of Saqlawiya town from the highway and raised the Iraqi flag,” a statement from the Joint Operations Command said.
Federal police moving from a different direction were also involved in the operation to retake Saqlawiya As elite forces are trying to push into the centre of Falluja, other forces have continued to clear areas around the city to ensure it is completely isolated. The operation in Saqlawiya is aimed at cutting off Falluja from Jazirat al-Khaldiyah, an area to the west which IS has been passing through to reach its positions elsewhere. The Joint Operations Command said a US-led coalition air strike had hit a boatload of IS fighters attempting to flee Falluja along the Euphrates river, killing all on board. Falluja lies just 50 kms (30 miles) west of Baghdad and is one of IS’s most emblematic bastions.
Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake the city on May 22-23. An Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi militia said on Saturday it planned to storm Falluja, Islamic State’s stronghold near Baghdad, once civilians left the city, backtracking on earlier statements that it would leave this task to the Iraqi army. “We will not enter Falluja as long as there are families inside,” said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, the largest component of the Shiite paramilitary coalition known as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization. “Of course, we will go in and rid the city from the evil of this cancerous gland, with nobody preventing us,” he said, when asked what would happen if civilians managed to flee the Sunni city that lies 50 kms (32 miles) west of Baghdad.
Falluja is the first Iraqi city that Islamic State captured, in January 2014, and the second largest still under its control after Mosul in the north. Sunni politicians have voiced concern that the presence of Shiite militias alongside the army in the battle to retake the city could lead to sectarian violence. Amiri was speaking to reporters while touring one of the frontlines near Falluja. Last week he said the militias would take part in encirclement operations but leave the army to storm the city.
Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi said on June 1 the offensive to dislodge the ultra-hardline Sunni militants had slowed down in order to protect civilians. About 50,000 are trapped in the city, with limited access to water, food and healthcare, according to the United Nations. Elsewhere, the Syrian army pushed into Raqa province, home to the de facto capital of Islamic State, after a major Russian-backed offensive against the militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.
The offensive is the third big assault on the self-proclaimed caliphate in recent days after Iraqi forces attempted to storm Falluja in central Syria and a Syrian militia advanced with US support towards Manbij in the north near the Turkish border.
The offensives are some of the most aggressive campaigns against Islamic State since it declared its aim to rule over all Muslims from parts of Iraq and Syria two years ago. Friday’s assault saw the army reach the edge of Syria’s Raqa province after heavy Russian air strikes hit Islamic State-held territory in eastern areas of neighbouring Hama province.
Raqa city, further east, is Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria and, along with Mosul in Iraq, the ultimate target of those seeking to destroy the group. State media said on Friday the army had made territorial gains and inflicted heavy casualties on the militants. Syrian army spokesmen were not immediately available for comment. State media has given no indication of how many troops are involved in the offensive, or what weaponry they might be using.
The Observatory also had no comment about numbers or weapons, but said at least 26 Islamic States militants had been killed along with nine from the Syrian and allied forces.
US fighter jets on Friday launched the first strikes against Islamic State targets from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the two-year campaign against the militant group, the US Navy said. The jets flew from the USS Harry S. Truman after the ship moved into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, marking the first air strikes conducted by a carrier group in that region since the Iraq war began in 2003, Navy officials said.
Previous strikes were launched solely by US and allied pilots from carriers in the Gulf or from land bases in Bahrain, Turkey and other countries. The Navy said the raids targeted Iraq and Syria, but gave no details on how many and what type of targets were hit. The United States is increasingly concerned about Russia’s growing military presence in the region, and the air strikes also send a message to Turkey that the US military has other ways to conduct its air war over Syria than from the Turkish air base at Incirlik.
Navy officials said the actions were also meant to dispel concerns raised by some lawmakers about the Navy’s decision in recent months not to maintain a constant carrier presence in the Gulf. Currently, the US Navy is operating three carriers: the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which will head to the Gulf in late June or early July, the USS John C. Stennis, which is operating in the South China Sea, and the Truman, which just left the Gulf.