Iraqi forces have begun an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah that aims to evict the extremists from one of their last major territories in Iraq.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the operation on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reports.
“The moment of real victory has come, and Daesh has no option but to flee,” Abadi told state TV, using an Arabic acronym for the Sunni extremist group.
The operation follows months of planning and preparation in coordination with a US-led military coalition that is backing Iraqi forces with airstrikes, WSJ says.
Iraqi forces have long had the city surrounded, but a major buildup of forces became evident in recent days as Shiite militias working alongside the Iraqi army moved military equipment to the area and officials suggested an operation was imminent.
Before the start of operations Sunday, the Iraqi government appealed to residents of Fallujah to prepare to leave, even urging them to raise white flags at their houses if they couldn’t.
The military’s Joint Operations Command said that civilian families would be allowed to leave the city through designated safe passages, though it didn’t specify how departures from the city would be arranged.
The Iraqi army, counterterrorism forces, police, tribal fighters and Shiite militias were taking part in the operation, according to the military.
Eissa al-Issawi, the exiled mayor of Fallujah, said Islamic State militants were retreating from the outskirts to the center of the city Sunday as the operation drew nearer.
Civilians inside were eager for any relief from isolation, 74-year-old resident Mohessen Hossam said.
Many people have died of starvation in the city since Iraqi forces imposed a blockade last year, residents have said, although the precise toll is impossible to measure.
”There’s no food, no fuel and no services, so what is left for us to live for?” Hossam said, adding that he could hear warplanes flying overhead on Sunday.
“We want someone to help us—anyone.”
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