BAGHDAD: Iraq’s elite forces deployed around Fallujah on Saturday, marking a new phase in efforts to retake the jihadist bastion, as concern grew for trapped civilians there and in neighboring Syria.
After almost a week of shaping operations around Fallujah, the arrival of the counter-terrorism service (CTS) signaled that an assault on the Islamic State group inside the city may be imminent.
The deployment of Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-tested unit came as US-backed forces pressed simultaneous offensives against IS in both Iraq and Syria.
Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the top commander in charge of the Fallujah operation, said the CTS, police and tribal fighters had reached two camps south and east of the city.
“These forces will break into Fallujah in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” he said, using an acronym for IS.
Fallujah, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in IS hands.
IS also advanced in Syria’s northern Aleppo province and further east as a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the US-led coalition pressed an offensive against Raqa, the jihadists’ de facto capital in Syria.
Raqa is home to an estimated 300,000 people and residents have been paying smugglers $400 (350 euros) each to try to flee after IS tightened restrictions on people leaving, the activist group Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has said.
Around 165,000 displaced Syrians are also trapped between the closed Turkish border and the town of Azaz, sparking UN concern.
“Fleeing civilians are being caught in crossfire and are facing challenges to access medical services, food, water and safety,” the UN refugee agency said.
Concern is also mounting for an estimated 50,000 civilians thought to be trapped inside Fallujah.
“We are receiving hundreds of displaced Iraqis from the outskirts of Fallujah who are totally exhausted, afraid and hungry,” said a statement from Nasr Muflahi, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“Thousands more remain trapped in the center of Fallujah, cut off from aid and any form of protection.”
The estimated 1,000 jihadists still in Fallujah are suspected of using civilians as human shields, but the UN refugee agency also said Iraqi forces had blocked supply routes, preventing people from leaving.