Forces retake Fallujah HQ
Iraqi forces raised the national flag over the main government compound in Fallujah yesterday, top commanders said, a breakthrough in the nearly four-week-old offensive against the Islamic State group's bastion.
They met limited resistance from IS fighters, who were fleeing the city, the commanders told AFP, leaving the organisation on the brink of losing one of the most emblematic strongholds in its two-year-old "caliphate".
It is the latest setback for the jihadists who have also lost territory in neighbouring Syria and in Libya in recent weeks, although US Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan warned on Thursday that they remain a formidable force with global reach.
Officials said the Iraqi flag was raised above government buildings in the compound and claimed that "Iraqi forces have now liberated 70 percent of the city."
In the deserted, recently reconquered neighbourhoods of the insurgent bastion known in Iraq as the "City of Mosques", elite forces were consolidating positions, stocking up on food and weapons.
Dozens of bodies of dead IS fighters were left to rot under blankets amid the rubble of homes destroyed by air strikes, rockets or controlled explosions of the hundreds of bombs the jihadists themselves laid across the city.
The government lost control of Fallujah in 2014, months before IS took second city Mosul and swept across large parts of the country.
Fallujah, which lies just 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, is one of IS's key historical bastions and its loss would leave Mosul as the only major Iraqi city under its control.
The US-led coalition, which has carried out air strikes in support of the Fallujah operation, had initially favoured focusing efforts on recapturing Mosul.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was facing huge political pressure over the reform of his own government when he declared the launch of the Fallujah operation, has vowed to defeat IS nationwide by the end of the year.
Security officials said many IS members had managed to slip out of the city by blending in with fleeing civilians in recent days, in some cases paying off security forces.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes since the start of the operation last month.
The first to escape IS rule were those living in rural outlying areas, in the early phase of the operation which saw a myriad different Iraqi forces seal the siege of the city.
Residents of the city centre had been trapped in dire conditions for days but recent advances have allowed large numbers to escape.
There were an estimated 50,000 people in the city when the operation was launched but it is unclear how many remain now.
Civilians have been used as human shields by IS and those who managed to flee face the risk of sectarian-motivated abuse by elements of the pro-government forces.
Fallujah is a Sunni Muslim city and the involvement of Shia militia groups in the operation had raised fears of sectarian revenge attacks.