Iraqi security forces say that after days of fierce fighting, they’ve wrested control of Fallujah’s main government building from ISIS militants. ISIS has controlled the city for the past 2 1/2 years.
Security forces say “they raised the Iraqi flag over the mayor’s compound in Fallujah,” as NPR’s Alison Meuse tells our Newscast unit, adding that the building houses the city’s main court and police headquarters.
It’s a major victory in their fight for Fallujah — the “last major city in western Iraq to be held by the extremist group,” according to The Associated Press. As The Two-Way has reported, the U.S.-backed forces launched an offensive to retake the city last month.
According to Reuters, Fallujah is seen as a “launchpad for recent Islamic State (IS) bombings in the capital, making the offensive a crucial part of the government’s campaign to improve security.”
But fighting continues to rage inside the city. The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, which is taking part in the offensive, posted on its Facebook page that its forces have surrounded Fallujah Hospital and that the attack is ongoing.
Haidar al-Obeidi, a special forces commander, says troops besieging the hospital are “clashing with IS snipers in adjacent buildings,” according to the AP. Obeidi said that “according to intelligence, the group has set up a command center on the hospital’s third floor.” The wire service adds that the commander was unsure whether there were any patients still in the central hospital.
And as Alison reports, “earlier this week, a Pentagon spokesman warned that despite Iraqi officials celebrating progress in Fallujah, it is likely to be some time before the city is clear of ISIS militants.”
Throughout the offensive, aid organizations have raised the alarm about the estimated 50,000 civilians that were trapped inside the city.
Earlier this month, Becky Bakr Abdulla of the Norwegian Refugee Council told Weekend Edition Saturday that humanitarian organizations haven’t been able to access the city since last September. That means civilians trapped inside “don’t have access to anything,” she says:
“So they’re basically surviving on whatever it is that they can find. Most of it is food for their crops and animals, such as dried dates that they’ve now started eating themselves.
“And they’re telling us about constant rockets and bombings and shootings. They’re not sleeping. They’re afraid of their lives every single minute of the day.”
Now, there are numerous reports that civilians are fleeing Fallujah in huge numbers.
There are currently no precise figures about the number of displaced, but some reports suggest it could be tens of thousands of people. Lisa Grande, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, tells The New York Times that “perhaps 10,000 families, or 60,000 people, were on the move toward government-held areas of western Anbar Province.” Grande says that camps there are “already overwhelmed and lack basic supplies, such as tents and clean drinking water.”
Earlier this month, Abdulla described what she’s heard from families about their harrowing escapes during the offensive:
“They wait until it’s dark. They’re only bringing the clothes off their backs and some have managed to bring their ID cards. Other than that, they’re not carrying anything with them. They’re running. Many are running barefoot in order not to be heard. They’re hiding in big drainage pipes. They’re swimming across the river.
“They’re carrying elderly, sick and children with them. Many have escaped 15 to 16 families together. We’ve also received reports on people that have died when they’ve managed to escape.”