Baghdad: ISIS threatened to use 50,000 civilians as human shields as elite Iraqi forces launched a spectacular assault on the extremist stronghold. Iraqi special forces were thrown into combat today as a deafening artillery barrage rained down on the city only 40 miles west of Baghdad.
They were supported by aerial strikes from coalition forces that threatened to wreak more misery on a terrified population who fear execution from ISIS if they attempt to flee the city.
Fallujah has been held by jihadists since 2014. It remains their second-biggest capture in the country after Mosul – Iraq’s third-largest city. Led by an elite counter-terrorism unit, fighting has so far been restricted to the outskirts of the city. ISIS’ defence has reportedly consisted of a series of suicide and car bombings.
Only a handful of families have been able to escape the city, where the UN said some civilians have starved to death while others have been executed for refusing to fight for the barbaric cult.
Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the operation’s commander, said: “Iraqi forces entered Fallujah under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation and supported by artillery and tanks.
“Counter-terrorism service (CTS) forces, the Anbar police and the Iraqi army, at around 4am [local time], started moving into Fallujah from three directions.
“There is resistance from Daesh.” Dozens of jihadists – including the group’s leader in the city Maher al-Bilawi – have been killed in airstrikes since preparations for the assault began last week.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition said: “[They] are holding the civilian population captive so that they can hide behind them. “We’ve killed more than 70 enemy fighters, including Al-Bilawi.” It is estimated a further 1,700 extremists are holding the remainder of the city, which had a population of more than 325,000 in 2010.
Thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga troops launched simultaneous assault to re-take a key road to the north-eastern city of Mosul. After liberating villages in the surrounding area First Lt. Hemin Rashid said: “I am very happy to help liberate these villages today, because they are Kurds like us.”
Allied forces have slowly been rolling back ISIS in Iraq and liberated the city of Ramadi at the turn of the year. More than 3,000 buildings and 400 roads and bridges were destroyed in a brutal eight-month period as ISIS booby-traps interspersed with air strikes virtually cleared the city of its residents.
During that time, it is estimated that nearly 1,000 civilians were killed by a mixture of fighting and executions by the terrorist organisation. Experts believe thousands of IEDs remain in the city – and disarming them could take years.
It heightened fears over what may await liberating forces in Fallujah and Mosul – a city of more than 600,000. One unnamed Western diplomat in capital Baghdad commented: “They know they can’t just turn Mosul into a parking lot.”