Iraqi forces expect fierce battle in Fallujah

Fighting in Syria and Iraq has prompted a new exodus of thousands of desperate civilians and deep concern for the many more trapped

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Iraqi forces started pushing into the city of Fallujah on Monday as a wave of bombings claimed by the ISIS group in Baghdad and near the Iraqi capital killed at least 24 people.

The advance is part of an offensive to rout militants from Fallujah and recapture the city west of Baghdad, which has been held by the Islamic State for over two years.

Elite Iraqi special forces began their push Monday, expecting to encounter the stiffest resistance yet in the campaign to free territory from the Islamic State group.

The city 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad has been under militant control longer than any other part of Iraq, and ISIS fighters have had more than two years to dig in. Networks of tunnels like those found in other ISIS-held territory have already been discovered in its northeastern outskirts.

The Iraqi troops, also known as the counterterrorism forces, are leading the assault on Fallujah, slowly moving up from the southern edge in a column of armored Humvees.

Their advance is expected to be slow because tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Fallujah and hidden bombs are believed to have been left throughout the city, according to special forces commanders at the scene. They expect fierce resistance from the jihadis, who have nowhere to run.

"This is the decisive battle for us and for Daesh," said Gen. Saad Harbiya head of Fallujah operations for the Iraqi army, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.


Meanwhile, the bombings by the Islamic State, which has been behind several recent deadly attacks in Baghdad and beyond, are seen as an attempt by the militants to distract the security forces' attention from the front lines.

The deadliest of Monday's attacks took place in the northern, Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad where a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a checkpoint next to a commercial area, killing eight civilians and three soldiers. The explosion also wounded up to 14 people, a police officer said.

In an online statement, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they targeted members of the Shiite militias and a government office.

Since launching the Fallujah offensive and until Monday, Iraqi government troops have mostly been fighting ISIS in the outskirts of the city to tighten the siege ahead of a planned final push into its center.

By Sunday, the troops had recaptured 80 percent of the territory around Fallujah, according to Iraqi Maj. Dhia Thamir.
At dawn Monday, Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces started pushing into Fallujah from its southern edge, said Brig. Haider al-Obeidi. He described the clashes as "fierce," with ISIS deploying snipers and releasing a volley of mortar rounds on the Iraqi forces.

"We started early this morning our operations to break into Fallujah," Sabah al-Norman, a spokesman for Iraq's elite counterterrorism service, told AFP.

The week-old operation has so far focused on retaking villages and rural areas around Fallujah, which lies just 50 kilometers west of Baghdad.

"I won't tell you hours but the breach of Fallujah will happen very soon," Hadi al-Ameri, a senior commander in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, told Iraqi television Saturday.

CTS's involvement will mark the start of a phase of urban combat in a city where US forces in 2004 fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.

In another front, Iraq's Kurdish peshmerga forces wrapped up an operation east of the ISIS 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 kilometres (46 square miles).

The KRSC claimed that in the course of the two-day operation, 140 ISIS fighters were killed and 14 car bombs were destroyed.

Suicide bomber hits cafe

It said coalition aircraft targeted ISIS forces during the attack and added that pockets of jihadists remained.

"Daesh attacked Heet to ease the pressure on their fighters inside Fallujah, especially following the announcement that CTS had arrived," the statement said.

Northeast of Baghdad on Sunday, police said a suicide bomber killed at least seven people and wounded 22 when he blew himself up in a cafe in Moqdadiyah, in an attack claimed by ISIS.

In northern Syria, the militants have launched an offensive against the towns of Marea and Azaz that threatens to overrun the last swathe of territory in the east of Aleppo province held by non-jihadist rebels.

It would also bring ISIS to the doorstep of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

As the fighting raged on multiple fronts, civilians were once again bearing the brunt of the conflict.

At least 29 civilians have been killed since IS began the assault in Aleppo province early on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 6,000 civilians fled into the countryside, it said.

In Iraq, only a few hundred families managed to slip out of the Fallujah area, with an estimated 50,000 people still trapped inside the city proper.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, around 3,000 people have managed to escape the Fallujah area since May 21.

The biggest wave so far arrived on Saturday night, the NRC said, but a larger influx could be triggered when the urban battle between Iraqi forces and the jihadists begins in earnest.

"Our resources in the camps are now very strained and with many more expected to flee we might not be able to provide enough drinking water for everyone," said Nasr Muflahi, NRC's Iraq director.

"We expect bigger waves of displacement the fiercer the fighting gets."