Iraqi forces clash with IS near Fallujah

Baghdad—Iraqi forces clashed with ISIS militants near Fallujah on Monday while bombing central districts in the initial hours of an offensive to retake the militant stronghold just west of Baghdad that could last several weeks. Some of the first direct engagement occurred in al-Hayakil area on the city’s southern outskirts, a resident said. Troops also approached the northern suburb of Garma, the top municipal official there said, to clear out militants before turning attention towards the city center.
Air strikes and mortars overnight targeted neighborhoods inside the city proper where ISIS is thought to maintain its headquarters. But the bombardment had eased by daylight. Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, speaking on state television, described the forces’ advance as “careful” and reliant on engineers to dismantle roadside bombs planted by the militants.
Fallujah, a longtime bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists, 50 km (30 miles) from Baghdad, was the first city to fall to ISIS, in January 2014. Six months later, the group declared a caliphate spanning large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Iraqi forces have surrounded the city since last year but focused most combat operations on ISIS-held territories further west and north. The authorities have pledged to retake Mosul this year in keeping with a US plan to dislodge ISIS from their de facto capitals in Iraq and Syria.
But the Fallujah operation, which is not considered a military prerequisite for advancing on Mosul, could push back that timeline. Two offensives by US forces against al-Qaeda insurgents in Fallujah in 2004, which left the city badly damaged, each lasted about a month. Army helicopters were shelling ISIS positions in nearby Garma and targeting movement in and out of the area in order to weaken resistance enough for ground troops to enter, Mayor Ahmed Mukhlif told Reuters.—Agencies

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