The Iraqi Army has declared on Saturday the start of an operation to liberate Fallujah’s city center, considered to be ISIS stronghold in the western province of Anbar, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces deployed on the edge of Fallujah Saturday for the first time since an operation was launched to retake the militants-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 Fallujah.
“CTS forces, Anbar emergency police and tribal fighters... reached Tareq and Mazraa camps” south and east of Fallujah, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the top commander in charge of the Fallujah operation, told AFP.
“These forces will break into Fallujah in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” he said, using an acronym for ISIS.
CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman confirmed the deployment but would not comment on the timing of an assault.
“CTS forces moved to Fallujah 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 specialize in,” Noman said.
The news comes after paramilitary forces sanctioned by the Iraqi government have withdrawn from an eastern district in Fallujah they had taken from ISIS militants and handed over the area to Baghdad central command troops and tribesmen, a senior military official said Saturday.
Head of Fallujah operations Lieutenant Commander Abdulwahab al-Saadi said the decision over the district of Gourma came after an order from Iraq’s General Command of the Armed Forces.
The paramilitary forces, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or al-Hashd al-Shaabi forces in Arabic, were initially made up of Shiite armed groups and volunteers after an edict by influential spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on Iraqis to fight ISIS.
PMF forces are under the control of the interior ministry, however, observers have criticized the paramilitary forces for competing with the Iraqi army and threatening Baghdad’s central command. Some of the militias that make up the group are said to be Iran-affiliated and receive funding from Tehran.
There were also reports of human rights violations after PMF took part when liberating the Iraqi city of Tikrit last year.
To ease fears from the country’s Sunnis, who have long claimed marginalization by Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the PMF forces would not participate in liberating Fallujah but will only work to surround the city, which is Anbar's capital.
However, sources to Al Arabiya News Channel said PMF has participated in battles in both Gourma and Al-Sijr, north of Fallujah.
On Thursday, Baghdad Operations Command chief Lieutenant Abdulamir al-Shimari said Gourma is now under Iraq’s control.
He said Iraqi flags were raised and dozens of ISIS militants were killed after recapturing the district.
Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold located just 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, at the start of this week.
On Saturday, Al Arabiya News Channel’s correspondent said ISIS hit back with a suicide car bombing to halt the Iraqi army’s advance on Fallujah.
US-led coalition air and artillery strikes have killed 70 ISIS fighters in Fallujah, including the militants’ leader in the city, a military spokesman said Friday.
Baghdad-based US Colonel Steve Warren said that over the last four days, 20 strikes in the besieged city had destroyed ISIS fighting positions and gun emplacements.
(With AFP)SHOW MORE