BAGHDAD, June 26, (Agencies): A senior Iraqi commander said the city of Falluja was “fully liberated” from Islamic State militants on Sunday, after a more than monthlong military operation.
Iraqi troops have entered the northwestern al-Julan neighborhood, the last area of Falluja to remain under IS control, the head of the counterterrorism forces in the operation, Lt Gen Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told The Associated Press. Al-Saadi said the operation, which began in late May, “is done and the city is fully liberated.”
The Iraqi army was backed by US-led airstrikes and paramilitary troops, mostly Shiite militias. “From the center of al-Julan neighborhood, we congratulate the Iraqi people and the commander in chief … and declare that the Falluja fight is over,” he told Iraqi state TV, flanked by military officers and soldiers. Some of the soldiers were shooting in the air chanting and waving the Iraqi flag. He added that troops will start working on removing bombs from the city’s streets and buildings.
The commander of Iraqi forces that retook Falluja from the Islamic State group said Sunday the operation had been carried out with limited damage to the city. “The percentage of destruction in Falluja is no more than 10 percent and is spread across all neighbourhoods of the city,” Al-Saadi told AFP. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi urged all Iraqis to celebrate the recapture of Falluja Sunday by the security forces and vowed the national flag would be raised in Mosul soon. “I call on all Iraqis wherever they are to get out and celebrate,” he told Iraqiya state television, standing in front of Falluja hospital with an Iraqi flag around his neck. “We will raise the Iraqi flag in Mosul soon,” he said, referring to Iraq’s second city, which is the Islamic State group’s last remaining major hub following the retaking of Falluja.
The offensive saw tens of thousands of civilians risk death to flee their homes, leaving Iraq to grapple with a humanitarian crisis as its forces prepare to attack the country’s last remaining major IS hub of Mosul. “The Iraqi security forces now control the whole city of Falluja,” said Sabah al- Noman, spokesman for the elite counterterrorism service (CTS) that has been leading the fight. CTS fighters on Sunday eased into Jolan, a northwestern neighbourhood of Falluja where the last IS fighters in the city were believed to be holed up. “Jolan was DAESH’s last stronghold in the city and Falluja is now free of the threat posed by DAESH terrorists,” he said, using an Arab acronym for IS.
“It did not take more than two hours for CTS to retake Jolan. DAESH did not fire a single bullet,” Noman said. “This proves that DAESH was defeated even before our forces got there.” A spokesman for the Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against IS said some jihadist pockets remained northwest of Falluja and that the overall operation could not be considered over yet. “We still have an ongoing fight northwest of Falluja. We never made central Falluja the ultimate goal of our operation … the aim is to clear the whole area,” he said.
The offensive began on May 22-23 with an initial phase of staging operations aimed at tightening a months-old siege on Falluja and led by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary organisation dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias. Qassem Suleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards’ overseas operations arm, was more visible than ever before in Iraq during the early days of the operation.
The US-led coalition offered some aerial support but was less involved than six months ago during the operations to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in which Falluja is also located. The US had favoured focusing the battle on Mosul, the country’s second city, where IS proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria two years ago almost to the day.