BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces faced tough resistance from the militant Islamic State (IS) group on Tuesday as they attempted to enter the centre of Fallujah, where there were mounting fears for thousands of trapped civilians.
A day after announcing a push into the militant stronghold, forces led by Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service had some way to go before retaking the city.
After thrusting towards Fallujah from three directions on Monday, their biggest advance was from the south, where they pushed into the suburb of Naimiyah.
Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the overall commander of the Fallujah operation, said IS fighters mounted a fierce counter-attack on the area early on Tuesday.
“There were around 100 fighters involved, they came at us heavily armed but did not use car bombs or suicide bombers,” he said. Saadi said Iraqi forces in the area, which also include police and army units, were eventually able to repel the attack, killing 75 militants. He did not give a figure for losses on the pro-government side.
Officers said US-led coalition and Iraqi air support was instrumental in repelling the attack and added that ground forces had now resumed their advance.
Fallujah, which lies on the Euphrates River west of Baghdad, was lost from government control months before IS swept across large parts of Iraq in June 2014 and is an emblematic bastion for the militant group.
Iraqi forces have been sealing off Fallujah for months and those still in city — IS fighters and civilians alike — have nowhere to go.
Anbar capital Ramadi was almost levelled when Iraqi forces retook it a few months ago but many more civilians — most estimates say around 50,000 — are trapped inside Fallujah.