Iraq claims 'big successes' in bid to recapture Islamic State-held Fallujah
Published 23/05/2016 | 00:26
Iraq's Prime Minister has hailed "big successes" by troops, hours after launching a military operation to recapture the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah.
Wearing the black uniform of Iraq's counter-terrorism forces, Haider al-Abadi said the offensive achieved "more than was planned for" as he met with commanders at Fallujah Operation Command on Monday.
Iraqi forces have pushed Islamic State militants out of some agricultural areas outside the city.
Ground fighting has been taking place around the town of Garma, east of Fallujah, which is considered the main supply line for Islamic State.
The extremists hold the centre of Garma and some areas on its outskirts. Iraqi troops have recaptured at least three agricultural areas outside Garma.
Mr al-Abadi said the offensive was planned to start more than two months ago, but was delayed due to political infighting and the deteriorating security situation inside Baghdad.
He announced the beginning of military operations in a televised speech late on Sunday night. He vowed to "tear up the black banners of strangers who usurped this city" and hoist the Iraqi flag.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes and paramilitary troops, Iraqi government forces launched the long-awaited military offensive on Fallujah late on Sunday night. The city, located about 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been under the militants' control since January 2014.
In the early days of the Sunni-led insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Fallujah emerged as the main stronghold for different militant groups opposed to American forces. The main group was al Qaida in Iraq, which later spawned Islamic State. Fallujah was the site of two bloody battles against US forces in 2004.
The offensive comes a week after Iraqi forces pushed IS out of the western town of Rutba, located 240 miles west of Baghdad, on the edge of Anbar province. Last month, Iraqi forces cleared territory along Anbar's Euphrates river valley after the provincial capital Ramadi was declared fully liberated earlier this year.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said in a statement that around 80 families are reported to have fled Fallujah over the past few days.
UNHCR said it has emergency stocks in Baghdad of 10,000 tents and 10,000 core relief items - such as sanitary kits and food and water supplies - that can assist families.
IS extremists still control significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including the country's second-largest city of Mosul.
The group declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria and at the height of its power was estimated to hold nearly a third of Iraqi territory. Mr al-Abadi said the group's hold has since shrunk to 14% of Iraq.