Iraqi army closes in on IS militants holed up west of Falluja
FALLUJA, Iraq—Iraq’s army sought on Monday to eliminate Islamic State militants holed up in farmland west of Falluja to keep them from launching a counterattack on the city a day after Baghdad declared victory over IS there.
Backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi artillery bombarded targets as troops closed in on up to 150 insurgents in areas along the southern bank of the Euphrates river, an army officer participating in the operation said.
The government’s recapture of Falluja, an hour’s drive west of the capital, was part of a broader offensive against IS, which seized large swathes of Iraq’s north and west in 2014 but is now being driven back by an array of forces.
Falluja’s recovery lent fresh momentum to the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the biggest anywhere in the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate and which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to retake this year.
Colonel Ahmed al-Saidi, who participated in Monday’s advance, said ground forces were moving cautiously to avoid triggering roadside bombs planted by Islamic State.
“They (holed-up militants) have two options: either they surrender or they get killed. We want to prevent them catching their breath and attacking our forces with car bombs.”
Saidi said radio intercepts suggested the militants were running out of ammunition and he expected them to fold shortly.
The military’s swift advance surprised many who anticipated a protracted battle for Falluja, a bastion of Sunni Muslim insurgency where some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S. occupation of Iraq took place in 2004 against Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaeda.—Reuters