A senior Iraqi commander has declared that the city of Fallujah is “fully liberated” from Islamic State group militants, after more than a month of military operations there.
Iraqi troops have entered the north-western al-Julan neighbourhood, which was the last area of Fallujah to remain under IS control, said the head of the counterterrorism forces in the operation, Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. Lt Gen 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 coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops, mostly fighters from Shiite militias.
“From the centre of al-Julan neighbourhood, we congratulate the Iraqi people and the commander in chief and declare that the Fallujah fight is over,” he told Iraqi state TV, flanked by military officers and soldiers.
Some of the soldiers were seen 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 announcement comes more than a week after Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Fallujah after Iraqi forces advanced into the city centre and took control of a government complex. While Mr al-Abadi pledged that the remaining pockets of IS fighters would be cleared out within hours, fierce clashes on the city’s northern and western edges persisted for days.
The operation has fuelled an exodus of thousands of families, overwhelming camps for the displaced which are run by the government and aid groups. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 85,000 people have fled Fallujah and the surrounding area since the Iraqi army’s offensive began.
Like other aid agencies, the UNHCR warned of the dire conditions in the camps, where temperatures are well over 40C and shelter is limited.
It called for more funds to meet the mounting needs of those displaced by the fighting.
The city has been under the control of Islamic State militants since January 2014.
Fallujah, which is located in Anbar province about 40 miles west of Baghdad, was the first city to fall to IS in January 2014.
During an insurgency waged by IS group’s militant predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Fallujah also was the scene of some of the bloodiest urban combat with American forces. In 2004, more than 100 US troops died and another 1,000 were wounded fighting insurgents in house-to-house battles.
IS extremists still control significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul.
The group declared an ‘Islamic caliphate’ on the territory it captured in Iraq and Syria and at the height of its power was estimated to hold nearly a third of each country.
In total, more than 3.3 million Iraqis have fled their homes since IS swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, according to UN figures.
More than 40 per cent of the displaced are from Anbar province.
In recent weeks, the militants have lost control over several territories in both countries.