Iraqi forces prepare offensive to take Falluja
Iraq's military has said it is preparing to launch an offensive to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Falluja. It told residents to get ready to leave before the fighting starts.
Families who could not flee should raise white flags to mark their location in the city 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, the army's media unit said.
Falluja, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists, was the first city to fall to Islamic State, in January 2014.
The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, have surrounded Falluja since late last year. The jihadists have prevented residents from leaving for months.
The army "is asking citizens that are still in Falluja to be prepared to leave the city through secured routes that will be announced later," the statement said, without saying when any offensive might start.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch said last month that residents of Falluja were facing acute shortages of food and medicine amid a siege by government forces. Aid has not reached the city since the Iraqi military recaptured nearby Ramada in December.
Essawi told a local television channel that more than 75,000 civilians remained in Falluja, in keeping with a recent U.S. military estimate of 60,000 to 90,000. Around 300,000 people lived in the city on the Euphrates river before the war.
Known as the 'City of Minarets and Mother of Mosques', Falluja is a focus for Sunni Muslim faith and identity in Iraq. It was badly damaged in two offensives by US forces against al-Qa'ida insurgents in 2004.
Besides Falluja, Isil still controls vast swathes of territory and major cities, like Mosul in the north, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year.