Iraqi forces thrust into the city of Fallujah from three directions on Monday marking a new and perilous urban phase in the week-old operation to retake the terrorist bastion.
The drive to recapture the first city to be lost from government control in 2014 came as fighting also raged in neighboring Syria, leaving huge numbers of civilians exposed.
Led by the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS), Iraq’s best trained and most seasoned fighting unit, the forces pushed into Fallujah before dawn, commanders 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,” said Lt. Gen. Abdelwahab Al-Saadi, the commander of the operation.
“There is resistance from Daesh,” he added.
The forces have not yet ventured into the city center but they recaptured some areas in a southern suburb after crossing a bridge, and took up positions on the eastern and northern fringes.
The only families who were able to flee so far lived in outlying areas, with the biggest wave of displaced reaching camps on Saturday night.
“Our resources in the camps are now very strained and with many more expected to flee we might not be able to provide enough drinking water for everyone,” said Nasr Muflahi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq director.
“We expect bigger waves of displacement the fiercer the fighting gets.”
In Amriyat Al-Fallujah, a government-controlled town to the south of the city, civilians trickled in, starving and exhausted after walking through the countryside for hours at night, dodging Daesh surveillance.
“I just decided to risk everything. I was either going to save my children or die with my children,” said Ahmad Sabih, 40, who reached the NRC-run camp early on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces wrapped up an operation east of Daesh’s northern hub of Mosul after recapturing nine villages, a statement said.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council said the operation launched before dawn on Sunday “had achieved its key objectives.”