Iraqi forces have recently stalled offensive operations against Islamic State (ISIS/IS/ISIL) jihadists at Fallujah’s outskirts, as concerns over the ultimate fate of trapped civilians and resistance from the jihadist group slowed their advance.
ISIS is using “several hundred families” of civilians in Fallujah as “human shields,” according to the United Nations. Iraqi forces, backed by the United States and Shiite militias linked to Iran, launched an operation to retake Fallujah from ISIS last week.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said concern for the estimated 50,000 civilians, including about 20,000 children, who remain trapped in Fallujah, has slowed progress.
“It would’ve been possible to end the battle quickly if protecting civilians wasn’t one of the foundations of our plan,” Abadi told commanders, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports, citing state television.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, another 300 families managed to escape areas around Fallujah recently, bringing to an estimated 5,000 the number of people who have fled since the start of the offensive to recapture the city.
“Commanders on the ground have discussed the issue of waiting until civilians get out and how this may negatively affect the operation,” Brig. Ahmed al-Bilawi, chief of police units in Anbar province, reportedly said. “They favor waiting for more civilians to come out, so we have had to listen to them the past few days.”
Fallujah, considered one of the last remaining ISIS stronghold’s in Iraq, is located about 35 miles west of Baghdad, in Anbar, the country’s largest province.
“The police are backing up counterterrorism units in the attempt to recapture Fallujah from Islamic State fighters, an offensive that started last week,” reports The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). “On Monday, Iraq’s elite counterterrorism unit began its move on the heart of the city but has struggled since then.”
AFP quotes unnamed Iraqi “commanders” as saying that resistance the elite forces are facing from the Islamic State is also slowing the Iraqi troops’ advance into Fallujah.
“Every time our forces try to push in, they encounter really tough defense systems set up by Daesh,” a police colonel at the fringes of Fallujah reportedly said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State.
“The closest Iraqi forces have come to moving into the centre is from the south, where they entered a suburb of Fallujah but were pinned back by a massive counterattack on Tuesday,” points out AFP.
The advance into Fallujah has also been halted by a vast network of weapon-storage tunnels constructed by ISIS fighters in and around the city, Iraqi officials said, adding that the jihadists “also have booby-trapped existing infrastructure, including drainage pipes,” reports the WSJ.
“We are still cleansing all liberated areas from explosives,” said Gen. Saad Harbiya, commander of Iraqi army operations in western Baghdad, who is leading some troops on Fallujah’s southern front.
“An offensive northwest of Fallujah to complete the encirclement of the city, led by Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iraqi army and police forces, was also under way,” notes the WSJ. “Some commanders have suggested this northern route could instead be used for the push into Fallujah, if the fight in the south remains bogged down.”
Iraqi government and military leaders have denied any pause in the offensive to push into central Fallujah from the south, adds the Journal.
Sabah al-Nouman, spokesman for the Iraqi counterterrorism forces leading the advance into Fallujah from the south, reportedly said that Iraqi forces were not advancing slowly, but “with caution” to avoid the explosives.
Inside Fallujah, residents are facing worsening shortages in food, water, and medicine, as well as extreme violence, fueled in part by forced recruitment into the fight by ISIS, among other problems.
“No aid has reached Fallujah since September last year and residents have been living on dates, dirty water from the Euphrates and animal feed,” reports AFP.
“Since the Sunni Muslim extremist group seized it in January 2014, Fallujah has been cut off from much of the outside world,” adds the WSJ. “For most of the past year, the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias have laid siege to the city, cutting it off from outside aid and trade and creating shortages of food and medical supplies. Phone networks are down, and electricity is scarce.”
Both warring sides are taking heavy losses, indicates the French news agency.
“Many Iraqi officers expect IS to put up more of a fight for Fallujah than some of the other cities they have lost in Iraq, such as Tikrit and Ramadi,” adds AFP. “Fallujah is one of only two major cities they still control in the country — the other being Mosul — and it looms large in modern jihadist mythology.”