- Operation to re-take ISIS stronghold began Monday
- The Iraqi military retook villages surrounding Falluja earlier in the day
“With God’s blessing we have launched the third phase of the operation to storm the center of Falluja city — by our heroes in the counter-terrorism forces, units of the Iraqi army and Anbar police,” Rasoul said.
“There is heavy air cover for this operation from our heroes in the Iraqi air force and the coalition.”
As the day progressed, Iraqi forces retook the village of Nuaimiya, just south of Falluja, closing in on the city itself, al-Iraqi TV reported.
“The rapid response team has raised the Iraqi flag above the police station,” a banner on al-Iraqi TV read.
Earlier Monday, Iraqi military units and supporting militia troops retook a handful of settlements from ISIS near the terror group’s Falluja territory. They include the the town of Saqlawiya, about 10 km (6.5 miles) northwest of the city, and the villages of al-Buaziz, al-Bu Efan and al-Shiha north and west of Falluja, state-run Iraqi TV reported.
Iraqi government troops, backed by Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units and an air campaign by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, launched the offensive last week to retake the ISIS stronghold, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, first targeting outlying settlements.
Hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, fled Falluja Friday as Iraqi soldiers attacked to drive ISIS from the city, the Iraqi military said.
Security forces evacuated about 760 people who escaped from the eastern and southeastern regions of Falluja, the military said.
Tens of thousands at risk
The United Nations’ refugee agency warned Friday that an estimated 50,000 people are at extreme risk, still caught in the city as the bombardment by the Iraqi military has intensified.
“There are reports of a dramatic increase in the number of executions of men and older boys in Falluja (who are) refusing to fight on behalf of extremist forces,” said Leila Jane Nassif, the U.N. agency’s assistant representative in Iraq.
“And many people have been killed or buried alive under the rubble of their homes in the course of ongoing military operations.”
Iraqi forces and supporting militias retook the key town of Karma from ISIS Thursday, a spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said. That was the government’s first significant victory in its push to reclaim Falluja,
The recapture of Karma, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) northeast of Falluja, brought most of the territory east of the city under government control.
As ISIS finds itself under increasing pressure in its territories, it has been lashing out with an increasing number of attacks on civilians in Iraqi and Syrian cities.
Three blasts shook parts of Baghdad Monday morning, according to Iraqi security sources. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
A bomb in a market in Baghdad’s al-Shaab neighborhood killed seven people and wounded 20 others. A separate explosion in Sadr city killed another two and wounded 10.
A suicide car bomber tried to ram into a police station in al-Tarmiya, but was stopped from reaching the target. He detonated the bomb, killing only himself and causing material damage but no injuries, sources said.
Further north, thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga troops are involved in an offensive to retake formerly Kurdish villages near the ISIS-held town of Mosul, Kurdish officials say.
The Peshmerga-led ground offensive, backed by international coalition air support, was launched early Sunday to retake several villages near Khazir, east of Mosul.
The operation includes approximately 5,500 Peshmerga fighters.
The move comes ahead of a joint offensive by Kurdish forces and Iraqi troops to retake Mosul, Kurdish media says.
Last week, across the border in Syria, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces pushed into territory north of ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa.
Activist Sarmad al-Jilane, of the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, confirmed reports that ISIS has let some residents of its so-called capital flee to the surrounding countryside or to the city of Deir Ezzor as Kurdish and Arab forces pushed forward.
CNN’s Merieme Arif contributed to this report