Iraqi special forces advanced to the edge of Fallujah on Monday but struggled to enter the city, where Islamic State extremists were said to be amassing civilians to serve as human shields, Reuters reports.
The offensive against Fallujah, Islamic State’s second-biggest urban stronghold in Iraq after Mosul, aims to dislodge the Sunni extremists from the Iraqi city they have occupied the longest.
If successful, it could significantly weaken them ahead of an advance on much-larger Mosul, long planned by the government and the US-led coalition supporting its fight against Islamic State.
The Fallujah operation, led so far by Shiite militias and army and police forces, has almost completely cleared the city’s perimeter of Islamic State fighters since it was launched a week ago.
But the next, crucial stage of that operation, led by Iraq’s US-trained counterterrorism forces, got off to a fitful start Monday.
“We are at the entrance of the city, but not inside yet,” Lt. Gen. Abdelwahab al-Saadi, commander of the Fallujah operation, said by telephone.
“They are resisting.”
“We assess that the forces are near the city limits,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led coalition in the fight against Islamic State.
Fallujah is an almost exclusively Sunni city in the desert province of Anbar—the vast heartland of Iraq’s Sunni minority—and the battle to retake it is particularly significant for Iraq’s fight against Islamic State.
More than a decade ago, Fallujah was a base for al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group that developed into Islamic State.
Islamic State faced little resistance when it swept into the city in January 2014, even before it stormed the country’s north and took the city of Mosul, laying claim to a so-called caliphate across Iraq and Syria.
Winning Fallujah could boost Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has faced political upheaval in recent months as street protesters demanded changes that lawmakers are too deadlocked to make.
– Contact us at [email protected]