IS conflict: Iraqi forces ‘retake Falluja city hall’

Iraqi military vehicles in the centre of Falluja (17 June 2016)Image copyright

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Iraqi forces advanced into central Falluja after capturing several southern and eastern areas

Iraqi government forces say they have retaken the main government compound in the city of Falluja from Islamic State (IS) militants.

A statement said the Iraqi flag was raised above the city council building after its capture by Counter Terrorism Force troops, police and soldiers.

They earlier reportedly recaptured several areas to the south and east.

Falluja, only 50km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, has been held by IS longer than any other city in Iraq or Syria.

The jihadist group overran the predominantly Sunni Arab area in January 2014, six months before it seized control of large parts of northern and western Iraq.

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Government forces launched the offensive to recapture Falluja almost four weeks ago, after besieging the city and its suburbs for several months.

On Friday morning, troops and police pushed into the city centre and retook the city council building, commander Lt Gen Abdul Wahhab al-Saadi told the BBC.

“The liberation of the government compound, which is the main landmark in the city, symbolises the restoration of the state’s authority,” federal police chief Raed Shaker Jawdat was quoted by AFP news agency as saying.

Mr Jawdat said government forces had met limited resistance as they advanced and were pursuing militants, who are thought to be regrouping in the west.

The military statement said police were moving along Baghdad Street, the main east-west road through the city, and that members of the Counter Terrorism Force (CTF) had surrounded Falluja General Hospital.

Analysis – By Jonathan Marcus, defence and diplomatic correspondent

Falluja’s capture would represent a significant blow to IS morale, recruitment and funding. Being a mere 50km west of Baghdad, it might also relieve some pressure on the Iraqi capital as well.

IS’s defeat should equally bolster the morale of the Iraqi forces who after a series of slow but deliberate campaigns – backed up by US and allied air power and advisers – have begun to have some success. However, the military battle is only part of the story.

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Military commanders said they had faced little resistance from IS

The capture of Falluja will present the Iraqi government with a major test. Can its forces – which include a significant Shia militia element – prevent the mistreatment of local Sunnis?

The government needs to show that Sunni and Shia forces can work together. Veteran US analyst Anthony Cordesman says: “Falluja has become a test of whether Iraq can move back towards some form of unity or federalism.”

CTF spokesman Sabah al-Numani told state television that snipers holed up inside the hospital were resisting, but that he expected the facility to fall within hours.

“This operation was done with little resistance from Daesh,” Gen Saadi told AFP, using an Arabic acronym based on the previous name of IS.

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The militants were believed to be regrouping in the west of Falluja

“There is a mass flight of Daesh to the west that explains this lack of resistance. There are only pockets of them left and we are hunting them down.”

There was no immediate information about the thousands civilians trapped in central Falluja in dire conditions and with little food or fresh water.

IS militants are reported to have used residents as human shields to slow the advance of government forces and limit air strikes by a US-led coalition.

Media captionFalluja eyewitness: “There’s been no food for 6 months”

Several civilians have also been killed by militants while attempting to escape the city, including, on Monday, a two-year-old boy who was being carried by his mother.

The UN says about 68,000 people have now fled Falluja since the government offensive began on 23 May, although Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) put the figure at closer to 30,000.

The NRC has warned its supplies of emergency aid for them are running low.

IS conflict: Iraqi forces ‘retake Falluja city hall’}

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