BAGHDAD, May 28, (Agencies): Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces deployed on the edge of Falluja Saturday for the first time since an operation was launched to retake the jihadist-held city, top commanders said.
The counter-terrorism service (CTS), Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-tested fighting unit, moved into position on the boundaries of Falluja, a bastion of the Islamic State group. “CTS forces, Anbar emergency police and tribal fighters… reached Tareq and Mazraa camps” south and east of Falluja, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the top commander in charge of the Falluja operation, told AFP.
“These forces will break into Falluja in the next few hours to liberate it from DAESH,” he said, using an acronym for IS. Falluja, which lies just 50 kms (30 miles) west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still controlled by IS.
CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman confirmed the deployment but would not comment on the timing of an assault. “CTS forces moved to Falluja to take part in clearing the city from within. The operation is shifting to urban warfare after Iraqi forces completed the siege of the city,” he said.
“CTS forces will break into the city, that’s what they specialise in,” Noman said. Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces, including the Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella group dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias, began a huge operation on May 22-23.
The aim is retake Falluja, the first city to fall out of government control even before IS swept through Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June 2014, and one of IS’s most iconic strongholds. The Hashed al-Shaabi forces (“Population Mobilisation” in Arabic), as well as army and police forces have so far focused their efforts on areas east of Falluja, without entering the city proper.
The CTS led the assault on several other major towns, cities and strategic sites across the country that were retaken from the jihadists over the past two years. Their involvement marks a new phase in the Falluja operation.
Iraq’s elite forces deployed around Falluja on Saturday, marking a new phase in efforts to retake the jihadist bastion, as concern grew for trapped civilians there and in Syria. After almost a week of shaping operations around Falluja, the arrival of the counter-terrorism service (CTS) signalled that an assault on the Islamic State group inside the city proper may be imminent.
The deployment of Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-tested fighting unit came as US-backed forces pressed simultaneous offensives against IS in both Iraq and Syria. “CTS forces, Anbar emergency police and tribal fighters… reached Tareq and Mazraa camps” south and east of Falluja,the top commander in charge of the Falluja operation, said. “These forces will break into Falluja in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” Abdelwahab al-Saadi said, using an acronym for IS. Falluja, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in IS hands.
CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman would not comment on the timing of an assault. IS also advanced in Syria’s northern Aleppo province and further east as a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the USled coalition pressed an offensive against Raqa, the jihadists’ de facto capital in Syria.