Iraqi forces retook the main government compound in the center of the jihadist bastion of Fallujah from ISIS on Friday, nearly four weeks after the offensive began, top commanders said.
“The counter-terrorism service and the rapid response forces have retaken the government compound in the center of Fallujah,” the operation’s overall commander, Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, told Agence France Presse.
Raed Shaker Jawdat, Iraq’s federal police chief, confirmed the advance, which marks a significant step in the nearly one-month-old offensive to retake the city, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.
“The liberation of the government compound, which is the main landmark in the city, symbolizes the restoration of the state’s authority” in Fallujah, he said.
Both commanders said their forces had met limited resistance from ISIS fighters during the push into the city center.
A military statement said the federal police had raised the Iraqi flag above the building and were continuing to pursue ISIS militants, who continued to hold other areas.
The government lost control of Fallujah in 2014, months before ISIS took second city Mosul and swept across large parts of the country.
On Thursday, The Norwegian Refugee Council said a two-year-old boy was killed by militants while fleeing Fallujah with his family, highlighting the dangers faced by civilians trying to escape the military operation.
NRC, which works with refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, cited a relative as saying that an ISIS fighter shot the boy as he was being carried out of the city by his mother on Monday. The gunfire hit the mother’s shoulder and killed her son, it said.
It was the mother’s fifth attempt to flee Fallujah since her husband’s escape three months earlier, the relative told NCR. On her previous four attempts, ISIS fighters had forced her to turn back.
As dozens of families began trying to flee the city, ISIS deployed snipers and planted bombs to prevent them from escaping. There are no official figures for how many civilians have been killed while fleeing Fallujah.
Aid groups estimate that 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside Fallujah. It is the last major city in western Iraq still held by the extremist group.
The United Nations has said that about 42,000 people have fled since the military operation began in late May. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the NRC say the number of those who have fled Fallujah is lower, and closer to 30,000.