Iraqi forces say they have secured the southern edge of ISIS stronghold of Fallujah, two weeks after the launch of an operation to recapture the city.
Lt. Gen. Abdel Wahab al-Saadi says his forces secured the largely agricultural southern neighborhood of Naymiyah, under cover of US-led coalition airstrikes, and are poised to enter the main city.
The slow-moving operation was announced in May. On Monday, Iraq’s elite special forces began pushing into the city center, but they have faced stiff resistance as Fallujah has been under ISIS control for more than two years, and the militants have been able to erect complex defenses.
Fallujah is one of the last strongholds of ISIS in Iraq. The militants also hold its second largest city, Mosul.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi paramilitary organization dominated by Tehran-backed militias is willing to send forces inside Fallujah if efforts to retake the city are too slow, its top commander said on Sunday.
Iraqi forces launched a vast offensive on May 22-23 against Fallujah, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad and is one of ISIS’s main bastions.
The Hashed al-Shaabi militias have since the start of the operation confined their action to Fallujah’s outskirts and left elite federal forces to conduct breaching operations.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has stated clearly that Hashed forces would not enter the city, amid fears of sectarian unrest and abuses against the city’s Sunni population.
But Hashed al-Shaabi’s military commander, who goes by the name Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, said that could change if the fighting drags on.
“We’re partners in the liberation, our mission is not yet done,” he told reporters in Baghdad.
“We have accomplished the task given to us, which was to surround (Fallujah) while the liberation was assigned to other forces,” Mohandis said.
“We are still in the area and we’ll continue to support (them) if the liberation happens quickly. If they are not able, we’ll enter with them.”
Hashed and other forces have almost completely surrounded the city, where Mohandis said 2,500 ISIS fighters are still holed up.
Backed by US-led air strikes, Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service has over the past week attempted to break into the center of the city but has been slowed by tough resistance, as well as concerns over the presence in central Fallujah of an estimated 50,000 civilians.
(With AFP, AP)SHOW MORE