Iraqi forces on Friday entered the heart of Fallujah, the long ISIS-held Iraqi city, nearly four weeks after the start of a U.S.-backed offensive that cleared out the population which was still there.
Government troops, backed by multiple air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, recaptured the municipal building, though ISIS terrorists still controlled a fair portion of Fallujah –many streets and houses remain mined with explosives.
According to a military statement, federal police raised the Iraqi state flag above the government building and continued pursuing ultra-hardline militants. Hours later, a coalition spokesman confirmed the advance. Iraq launched a major operation on May 23 as to restore Fallujah into Iraqi authority.
However, the participation of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in the battle alongside the Iraqi army raised fears of sectarian killings, and authorities are already investigating allegations that militiamen executed dozens of Sunni men fleeing the city.Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged pro-government fighters in a Friday sermon not to seek revenge against residents.
Fighting continued as government forces pushed into the city, and troops could be seen coming under sniper fire as they entered a large mosque about 100 meters from the municipal building.
Clashes involving airstrikes, artillery and machine gun fire were ongoing. Clouds of smoke could be seen rising up from areas closer to the city center.
Heavily armed Interior Ministry police units were advancing along Baghdad Street, the main east-west road running through the city, and commandos from the counter-terrorism service (CTS) had surrounded Fallujah hospital, the military statement said.
Sabah al-Numani, a CTS spokesman, said on state television that snipers were holed up inside the hospital but the facility was expected to be retaken within hours.
Fallujah was seen as a launchpad for recent ISIS bombings in Baghdad, making the offensive a crucial part of the government’s campaign to improve security in the capital.