Iraq’s military on Sunday told residents of Fallujah to leave as it was preparing to launch an offensive to retake the ISIS stronghold city.
Families who could not flee should raise white flags to mark their location in the city 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, the army’s media unit said in a statement on state television.
The army “is asking citizens that are still in Fallujah to be prepared to leave the city through secured routes that will be announced later,” the statement said, without saying when any offensive might start.
Fallujah, a long-time bastion of ultra-radical jihadists, was the first city to fall to ISIS, in January 2014, six months before the group swept through large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
ISIS emerged in Iraq in 2013 as an Al-Qaeda affiliate. In 2014, the terror cell attacked Kurdish-held territory in the northern part of Iraq and seized territories in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. By August of 2014, ISIS controlled nearly a third of Iraq.
The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, have surrounded Fallujah since late last year. The jihadists have prevented residents from leaving for months.
Deputy district council chairman Fail al-Essawi said three corridors would be opened for civilians to camps west, southwest and southeast of the city.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch said last month residents of Fallujah were facing acute shortages of food and medicine amid a siege by government forces. Aid has not reached the city since the Iraqi military recaptured nearby Ramada in December.
Officials have appealed to the coalition to air-drop humanitarian supplies to the trapped civilians, as that was the only way to deliver aid after ISIS mined the entrances to the city and stopped people leaving.
Essawi told a local television channel that more than 75,000 civilians remained in Fallujah, in keeping with a recent U.S. military estimate of 60,000 to 90,000. Around 300,000 people lived in the city on the Euphrates river before the war.
Known as the “City of Minarets and Mother of Mosques”, Fallujah is a focus for Sunni Muslim faith and identity in Iraq. It was badly damaged in two offensives by U.S. forces against al Qaeda insurgents in 2004.
Besides Fallujah, ISIS still controls vast swathes of territory and major cities like Mosul in the north, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year.