Iraqi forces cleared areas around Fallujah Tuesday after launching an assault to retake the city, tightening their siege on Daesh group fighters but also raising fears for civilians trapped inside.
With the terrorists surrounded and outnumbered, the recapture of their iconic bastion looked ultimately inevitable, especially after Daesh suffered a string of losses in recent months.
But illustrating that even a diminished Daesh is still dangerous, the group has struck back with a wave of bomb attacks, including a series of blasts that left more than 160 dead in Syrian regime coastal strongholds on Monday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared the start of the operation to retake Fallujah on Monday and less than a day into the battle, Iraqi forces had secured the nearby town of Garma.
That cut off Daesh fighters in Fallujah from one of their last support areas and paved the way for more advances toward the city, which lies only 50 km west of Baghdad.
“Federal forces advanced toward the east of Fallujah early today from three directions,” police Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat told AFP.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi umbrella paramilitary organization, dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias that are heavily involved in the operation, said ground was also gained south of Fallujah.
With forces converging on the city, concerns mounted that the tens of thousands of civilians believed to still be inside had nowhere to go.
The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated the number at 50,000 and urged efforts to get them out.
“Families who have been suffering food and medical shortages over the last months now risk being caught in the crossfire and it is absolutely vital that they are granted safe routes out of there so that we can assist them,” NRC country director Nasr Muflahi said in a statement.
He told AFP that only 80 families appeared to have been able to flee the city in the hours before the fighting began, and none since.
“We were expecting more to come out overnight, this hasn’t happened,” Muflahi said, adding that plans by local authorities to open humanitarian corridors had not yet materialized.
Officials from Anbar, the vast western province in which Fallujah is located, reported that small numbers of civilians had managed to sneak out. A Fallujah resident reached by telephone told AFP there was heavy shelling on the northern edge of the city on Tuesday.
“Daesh is still imposing a curfew, preventing people from coming out on the street. Some of them are allowed to stand at their gates,” said the man, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed Al-Dulaimi.
“The number of Daesh members is decreasing and we have started seeing them walk in the street in groups of two or three. We don’t know where the others are,” he said.