Simon Tomlinson — Daily Mail May 30, 2016
Iraqi forces entered Fallujah today in a final assault to retake the city where 50,000 civilians are being held hostage by ISIS.
Troops backed by coalition air strikes, artillery and tanks stormed the terror group’s bastion on three fronts in a massive dawn offensive.
They were joined by counter-terrorism service (CTS) forces, marking the start of a phase of urban combat in a city where US forces in 2004 fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.
Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander in charge of the operation, said: ‘Iraqi forces entered Fallujah under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation and supported by artillery and tanks.
‘Counter-terrorism service (CTS) forces, the Anbar police and the Iraqi army, at around 4am (1am GMT), started moving into Fallujah from three directions,’ he said.
‘There is resistance from Daesh,’ he added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
CTS spokesman Sabah al-Norman said: ‘We started early this morning our operations to break into Fallujah.’
The week-old operation had previously focused on retaking villages and rural areas around Fallujah, which lies just 30 miles west of Baghdad.
Only a few hundred families managed to slip out of the Fallujah area ahead of the assault on the city, with an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped inside, sparking fears the jihadists could try to use them as human shields.
Fallujah is one of just two major urban centres in Iraq still held by ISIS. They also hold second city Mosul.
Major Dhia Thamir, of the Special Forces Service, said troops have recaptured 80 per cent of the territory around the city since the operation began a week ago.
But the overall commander of the Fallujah operation, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, said Saturday it was a matter of hours before the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) entered the city.
The week-old operation has so far focused on retaking villages and rural areas around the city, which lies only 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
‘I won’t tell you hours but the breach of Fallujah will happen very soon,’ Hadi al-Ameri, a senior commander in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, told Iraqi television.
CTS’s involvement will mark the beginning of a phase of urban combat in Fallujah, a city where US forces in 2004 fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.
The jihadists were also under pressure from Kurdish fighters east of their northern Iraqi stronghold Mosul and from US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in Syria.
Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region announced yesterday the launch of a pre-dawn offensive involving 5,500 peshmerga fighters to retake an area on the road between its capital Arbil and Mosul.
‘This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIS in and around Mosul in preparation for an eventual assault on the city,’ the Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement.
In Syria, Kurdish rebels from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) allied to Arab fighters and backed both on the ground and in the air by the US-led coalition, were targeting Raqqa, ISIS’s de-facto Syrian capital.
ISIS countered in both countries where they declared their ‘caliphate’ in 2014, attacking non-jihadist rebels in Syria as well as the Iraqi town of Heet, which was recaptured by the army just last month.
‘An attack by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists on several parts of Heet was thwarted… Now the whole area is under control,’ the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
It said coalition aircraft targeted ISIS forces during the attack and added that pockets of jihadists remained.
‘Daesh attacked Heet to ease the pressure on their fighters inside Fallujah, especially following the announcement that CTS had arrived,’ the statement said.
In northern Syria, the jihadists have launched an offensive against the towns of Marea and Azaz that threatens to overrun the last swathe of territory in the east of Aleppo province held by non-jihadist rebels.
It would also bring ISIS to the doorstep of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
As the fighting raged on multiple fronts, civilians were once again bearing the brunt of the conflict.
At least 29 civilians have been killed since ISIS launched the assault in Aleppo province early on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
More than 6,000 civilians fled into the countryside, it said.