BAGHDAD, May 30, (AFP): Iraqi forces thrust into the city of Falluja from three directions on Monday marking a new and perilous urban phase in the week-old operation to retake the jihadist bastion. The drive to recapture the first city to be lost from government control in 2014 came as fighting also raged in neighbouring Syria, leaving huge numbers of civilians exposed. Led by the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS), Iraq’s best trained and most seasoned fighting unit, the forces pushed into Falluja before dawn, commanders said. “Iraqi forces entered Falluja under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation, and supported by artillery and tanks,” said Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander of the operation.
“There is resistance from DAESH,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for IS. The forces have not yet ventured into the city centre but they recaptured some areas in a southern suburb after crossing a bridge, and took up positions on the eastern and northern fringes. The involvement of the elite CTS marks the start of a phase of urban combat in a city where in 2004 US forces fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War. The week-old operation had previously focused on retaking rural areas around Falluja, which lies just 50 kms (30 miles) west of Baghdad. It had been led by the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which is dominated by Tehranbacked Shiite militias.
They were still in action Monday, attempting to clear an area northwest of Falluja called Saqlawiya, officers said. Only a few hundred families have managed to slip out of the Falluja area ahead of the assault on the city, with an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped inside, sparking fears the jihadists could try to use them as human shields. The only families who were able to flee so far lived in outlying areas, with the biggest wave of displaced reaching camps on Saturday night.
Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces wrapped up an operation east of the Islamic State group’s northern hub of Mosul Monday after recapturing nine villages, a statement said. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said the operation launched before dawn on Sunday “had achieved its key objectives”. The KRSC statement listed nine villages that had been occupied by IS since the summer of 2014 and were previously mainly inhabited by northern Iraq’s Kakai and Shabak minorities. The operation involved around 5,500 peshmerga fighters backed by US-led coalition air strikes and reconquered an area of 120 square kms (46 square miles). The area, near Khazir, lies near the main road between Mosul and the autonomous Kurdish region’s capital Arbil.