Iraqi special forces entered the centre of Fallujah city yesterday, taking over a government complex and a neighbourhood that served as a base for the Islamic State group militants after intense fighting, a commander said
Commander Haidar al-Obeidi, of the special forces, told reporters that the forces are now besieging the nearby central hospital, clashing with IS snipers in adjacent buildings.
Aid groups estimate that 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside Fallujah, which has been under IS control for more than two years. It is the last major city in western Iraq to be held by the extremist group.
“Iraqi forces are now in the centre of the city. They had not been there since the beginning of 2014,” Cmdr Obeidi said. He added IS militants “collapsed”, suggesting that most of them fled after the Iraqi forces moved in on the al-Nazzal neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood, near the government complex, served as a base for the militants, and had weapons warehouses and command centres. When the neighbourhood fell, the troops were able to move into the city centre and the government complex. He said special forces believe militants are hiding in areas nearby and the search for them continues.
He said troops entered the city centre around 6am local time after intense fighting with Islamic State militants and with air support from the US-led coalition and Iraqi air force. Iraqi forces are now clearing roadside bombs near the government complex, which includes the municipal offices that IS had torched, the police station and other government buildings.
Troops are also clearing the highway west of the city, linking it to Baghdad, Cmdr Obeidi said. The United Nations has said that about 42,000 people have fled since the military operation against Fallujah began in late May. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council say the number is lower, closer to 30,000.
The conflict in Iraq has forced more than 3.3 million people to flee their homes. Iraq is also hosting up to 300,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Most are living in camps or informal settlements.
The loss of Fallujah comes less than two months after the Syrian army retook Palmyra from IS which was seen as an important step in the containment and eventual defeat of the jihadist group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Both defeats will contribute towards a chipping away at the group’s power base, both geographically and strategically, as well as debasing the myth that the caliphate’s armies are all-conquering and unable to be defeated.
Apart from protecting its beauty and historic importance, reversing the fall of Palmyra was psychologically important.
The fall of the town and its historic sites to IS in May 2015 had much the same psychological effect as when IS forces rolled into Ramadi in Iraq the same month.
Having suffered territorial defeats in Baiji, Tikrit, Kobani and Hassakah, IS was able to rebound almost immediately by taking both towns. In both cases, the forces of the Syrian and Iraqi state crumbled before their advance.
Palmyra’s fall was a huge blow to the momentum built up by the counter-IS coalition and pushed back estimations of the jihadists’ demise by months, if not years.