Iraq forces prepare for final assault on ISIS-held Fallujah
BAGHDAD - Elite Iraqi troops were poised Sunday to assault one of the Islamic State group's most emblematic bastions, Fallujah, as the jihadists counterattacked in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The fighting prompted a new exodus of thousands of desperate civilians and deep concern for the many more trapped in the battlegrounds.
The overall commander of the Fallujah operation, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, said Saturday it was a matter of hours before the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) entered the city.
The week-old operation has so far focused on retaking villages and rural areas around the city, which lies only 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
"I won't tell you hours but the breach of Fallujah will happen very soon," Hadi al-Ameri, a senior commander in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, told Iraqi television.
CTS's involvement will mark the beginning of a phase of urban combat in Fallujah, a city where US forces in 2004 fought some of their toughest battles since the Vietnam War.
The jihadists were also under pressure from Kurdish fighters east of their northern Iraqi stronghold Mosul and from US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in Syria.
Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region announced Sunday the launch of a pre-dawn offensive involving 5,500 peshmerga fighters to retake an area on the road between its capital Arbil and Mosul.
"This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIL (ISIS) in and around Mosul in preparation for an eventual assault on the city," the Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement.
In Syria, Kurdish rebels from the People's Protection Units (YPG) allied to Arab fighters and backed both on the ground and in the air by the US-led coalition, were targeting Raqa, IS's de-facto Syrian capital.
ISIS countered in both countries where they declared their "caliphate" in 2014, attacking non-jihadist rebels in Syria as well as the Iraqi town of Heet, which was recaptured by the army just last month.
"An attack by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists on several parts of Heet was thwarted... Now the whole area is under control," the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
It said coalition aircraft targeted ISIS forces during the attack and added that pockets of jihadists remained.
"Daesh attacked Heet to ease the pressure on their fighters inside Fallujah, especially following the announcement that CTS had arrived," the statement said.
In northern Syria, the jihadists have launched an offensive against the towns of Marea and Azaz that threatens to overrun the last swathe of territory in the east of Aleppo province held by non-jihadist rebels.
It would also bring ISIS to the doorstep of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
As the fighting raged on multiple fronts, civilians were once again bearing the brunt of the conflict.
At least 29 civilians have been killed since ISIS launched the assault in Aleppo province early on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
More than 6,000 civilians fled into the countryside, it said.
Northwest of Azaz, a senior nurse said late Saturday that a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was closed except for emergencies.
MSF said on Friday that it was evacuating patients and staff from the hospital in Salamah town as it was just three kilometres (two miles) from the front line.
In Iraq, only a few hundred families managed to slip out of the Fallujah area, with an estimated 50,000 people still trapped inside the city proper.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, around 2,200 people have managed to escape the Fallujah area since Iraqi forces launched their operation on May 22-23.
"We are receiving hundreds of displaced Iraqis from the outskirts of Fallujah who are totally exhausted, afraid and hungry," said Nasr Muflahi, NRC's Iraq director.