Iraqi forces hunted down holdout terrorists in Fallujah Saturday after retaking the city center and trained their sights on Mosul, Daesh’s last remaining major hub in the country.
While not fully under government control yet, Fallujah is the latest in a string of battlefields losses for Daesh, which has seen its two-year-old “caliphate” shrink significantly in recent months.
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on Friday declared Fallujah retaken after the national flag was raised over the main government compound but Daesh terrorists still hold most northern neighborhoods.
Elite Iraqi forces “are continuing their progress in the liberation of neighborhoods in northern Fallujah,” Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab Al-Saadi, the overall commander of the operation, said.
Forces led by the police of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, were meanwhile combing reconquered southern neighborhoods for pockets of Daesh fighters and explosive devices, he said.
Abadi announced the recapture of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, in December but the security forces only established full control over the city in February.
Saadi and other commanders said Iraqi forces faced only limited resistance during the major advance that saw them push into the heart of Fallujah and clinch a breakthrough in the four-week-old operation.
Security sources said Daesh terrorists have been slipping out of the city by blending in with civilians fleeing the fighting.
Daesh’s retreat in Fallujah sparked what the Norwegian Refugee Council described as “an unprecedented tidal wave of mass displacement from Fallujah.”
It said late Friday that up to 20,000 people fled the city in just a few hours.
Footage on social media showed hundreds of people swimming across the Euphrates to reach safety.
“It is unknown how many families are still trapped inside Fallujah but we are concerned they are the most vulnerable — pregnant women, elderly people, people with disabilities,” the NRC said. Building on the momentum of the Fallujah operation, Iraq announced Saturday that joint Kurdish-federal forces were starting a new phase in the push on Mosul from the south.
Abadi ignored US advice to focus on Mosul last month when he declared the launch of the Fallujah operation but he vowed on Friday that the liberation of the northern city was “very near.”
Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, argued that Daesh could survive the loss of Fallujah.