NAYMIYAH, Iraq, June 5, (Agencies): Iraqi forces secured the southern edge of the Islamic State group stronghold of Falluja on Sunday, two weeks after the launch of an operation to recapture the city, the Iraqi special forces commander overseeing the operation said. Iraqi special forces, also known as its counterterrorism forces, have secured the largely agricultural southern neighborhood of Naymiyah under cover of US-led coalition airstrikes, Lt Gen Abdel Wahab al-Saadi said. Special forces are now poised to enter the main city, al-Saadi said.
The Falluja operation coincides with a twin offensive on ISstrongholds in neighboring Syria. Syrian Kurdish forces are advancing on Manbij, an IS-held city controlling the supply route between the Turkish border and the town of Raqa, the militants’ de facto capital. At the same time, Syrian government troops are advancing on Raqa from the south.
The slow-moving Iraqi operation was announced in May. An array of troops including Iraqi military divisions, the federal police and the largely Shiite militia groups, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, had cleared IS from the majority of Falluja’s suburbs. On Monday, Iraq’s elite special forces began pushing into the city center, but they have faced stiff resistance as Falluja has been under IS control for more than two years, and the militants have been able to erect complex defenses.
US-backed fighters advanced Sunday to within five kilometres (three miles) of the Islamic State group’s stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria, threatening a crucial supply link for the jihadists. The assault on the city by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) adds to pressure on the jihadist group in Syria, which also faces another offensive by Russianbacked regime troops in its bastion province of Raqa.
Supported by air strikes by the US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq, the SDF alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias has been making steady gains since launching the operation to take Manbij last week. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Sunday the SDF was “now within about five kilometres of the strategic city of Manbij”.
A top Syrian Kurdish commander died Sunday, several days after sustaining injuries during a US-backed campaign to unseat the Islamic State group from its de-facto Syrian capital, Raqa. Abu Layla, who commanded a brigade inside the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, was hit by IS sniper fi re on the outskirts of Manbij, an Islamic State group stronghold that controls the supply route between the Turkish border and Raqa, the Kurdish website Rudaw said. He was evacuated by US forces to a hospital in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, where he died.
The commander fought against IS militants in Kobani in early 2015, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. Those battles, the first major setback to the IS advance in northern Syria, were seen as instrumental to securing US support for Kurdish forces in the country’s multi-layered confl ict.