US-backed Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants in Fallujah are advancing towards militant strongholds in western districts where they expect the final push to recapture the city will take place, the Iraqi commander said yesterday.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory on Friday after troops reached the centre of the city, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, but an official in the US-led coalition said on Sunday Iraqi forces had so far taken only half of Fallujah.
The operation to recapture the Iraqi city longest held by Islamic State entered its fifth week yesterday, and fighting has forced more than 85,000 residents to flee to overwhelmed government-run camps.
Iraqi forces continue to face shooting, suicide bombs and mortar attacks as they confront militants north of a road running through the city.
Heavily armoured Interior Ministry police units were pressing towards Golan neighbourhood, on the northwestern edge of the city, Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi said at his temporary command post in a southern district.
“The biggest effort now is on the western axis. If they collapse on the western axis and our forces reach Golan, you won’t hear any more shots inside Fallujah,” he said.
Troops from Saidi’s counter-terrorism force were fighting Islamic State in al-Dhubat district, further east.
Fifty militants were killed there by coalition air strikes on Sunday and at least 15 others died in clashes, the commander said.
Army troops moving north from the neighbourhood of Shurta had not yet entered al-Jughaifi area on the city’s northern edge, while units from Baghdad operations command were advancing in the easternmost district of Askari, according to Saidi.
Sitting with other officers from the elite counter-terrorism service at a plastic picnic table littered with walkie-talkies inside an unfinished building, Saidi said the battle would end soon.
Most of the militants, including a few hundred foreign fighters, were killed or captured trying to escape with civilians, he said. Only six counter-terrorism commandos had been killed.
Government troops launched the operation on May 23 to retake Fallujah.
Enemies of Islamic State have launched major offensives against the militants on other fronts, including a push by US-backed forces against the city of Manbij in northern Syria.
They amount to the most sustained pressure on Islamic State since it proclaimed a religious caliphate in 2014.
In battle-scarred Fallujah, which has witnessed more than a decade of violence - between Al Qaeda and US forces and later Iraq’s own security forces - it is hard to tell how much of the visible damage has been caused by the latest fighting.
Along the route from Saidi’s outpost into the city centre lie the remnants of vehicle-borne suicide bombs dispatched recently by Islamic State, Al Qaeda’s successor.
Brown scraps of metal dot the barren roadside.
The latest round of fighting, though, seems to have taken a lighter toll than previous campaigns, including the battle to retake Ramadi, the city 50km (30 miles) further west recaptured six months ago.
Fallujah has incurred fewer air strikes and Iraqi forces’ quick advance to the city centre last week suggested the roads were less plagued by Islamic State mines.
Saidi estimated damage to the city’s infrastructure at less than 5%, which Reuters could not verify.
Most houses have not yet been checked for explosives, a process that will delay the return of residents.
Government forces said yesterday the main hospital, a stronghold of militants which they surrounded a day earlier, had been partially burnt but was not booby-trapped and was not sheltering suicide bombers as initially suspected.
Police checking the complex found little other than an unidentified body and the buried corpse of an Islamic State fighter.
Saidi issued a ban over his walkie-talkie against anyone re-entering the hospital, in an apparent attempt to prevent looting by undisciplined security elements.
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