Wednesday 21 February 2018

Iraqi troops fight way into Isil's Fallujah stronghold

Iraqi special forces in Fallujah during an operation to retake the city from Isil. Photo: Jean Marc Mojon/Getty
Iraqi special forces in Fallujah during an operation to retake the city from Isil. Photo: Jean Marc Mojon/Getty

Qassim Abdul Zahra

Aid groups estimate that 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside Fallujah, which has been under Isil control for over two years. It is the last major city in western Iraq held by the extremist group.

"Iraqi forces are now in the centre of the city. They had not been there since the beginning of 2014," Haidar al-Obeidi, commander of Iraq's special forces, said.

He said Isil "collapsed" and suggested that most of them had fled after the Iraqi forces moved in on the al-Nazzal neighbourhood.

The neighbourhood, near the government complex, served as a base for the militants, where they had weapons warehouses and command centres.

When the neighbourhood fell, the Iraqi troops were able to move into the city centre and the government complex. Troops are also clearing the highway to the west of the city, linking it to Baghdad.

The United Nations has said that about 42,000 people have fled since the military operation against Fallujah began in late May. Aid groups say the number of those who have fled Fallujah is lower, closer to 30,000.

The conflict in Iraq has forced more than 3.3 million people to flee their homes. Iraq is also hosting up to 300,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria.

Meanwhile, a two-year-old boy was killed by militants while fleeing Fallujah with his family, an aid organisation has said, highlighting the dangers faced by civilians trying to escape.

The Norwegian Refugee Council cited a relative as saying that an Isil fighter shot the boy as he was being carried out of the city by his mother on Monday. The gunfire hit the mother's shoulder and killed her son.

It was the mother's fifth attempt to flee Fallujah since her husband's escape three months earlier, the relative said. On her previous four attempts, Isil fighters had forced her to turn back.

On Monday, the mother and her two sons and three daughters, all under eight years old, joined other residents on a perilous journey out of Fallujah.

The relative explained: "The children were getting agitated and uncomfortable in the water, making noises as they were about to dash out. They must have attracted the attention of the fighters, who opened fire."

The toddler was killed instantly. His mother was bleeding heavily and had to be dragged out of the water by her companions. Her other children escaped unharmed.

The names of the mother and her relative were withheld to protect other family members still living under Isil rule.

Irish Independent

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