Iraqi government forces on Monday pushed Islamic State militants out of some agricultural areas outside Fallujah as they launched a military offensive to recapture the city from the extremists, officials said.
Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops, Iraqi government forces launched the long-awaited military offensive late Sunday. The city, located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, has been under the militants' control since January 2014.
The commander of the Fallujah operation, Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, could not say how long the offensive would take, citing the terrain, the number of civilians in the city and bombs planted by the militants. Al-Saadi added that the first phase aims to surround and bomb IS positions.
Federal police battalion commander, 1st Lt. Ahmed Mahdi Salih, said ground fighting was taking place around the town of Garma, east of Fallujah, which is considered the main supply line for the militants. IS holds the center of Garma and some areas on its outskirts.
Col. Mahmoud al-Mardhi, who is in charge of paramilitary forces, said his troops recaptured at least three agricultural areas outside Garma. Al-Mardhi added that airstrikes and artillery shelling intensified against IS positions inside Fallujah.
In the early days of the Sunni-led insurgency following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Fallujah emerged as the main stronghold for different militant groups opposed to American forces. The main group was al-Qaida in Iraq, which later spawned IS. The city was also the site of two bloody battles against U.S. forces in 2004.
Since August, Fallujah has been under siege by government troops, who have prevented the entry of food and medicine into the city. Residents seeking to flee the city have sometimes found themselves trapped by the militants, who aim to retain Fallujah's civilian population as human shields against a full-scale government assault.
As of Monday, there was no evidence of mass displacement from the city or surrounding areas, but the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said in a statement that around 80 families are reported to have fled Fallujah over the past few days. UNHCR says it has emergency stocks in Baghdad of 10,000 tents and 10,000 core relief items — such as sanitary kits and food and water supplies — that can assist families.
Flanked by senior military commanders, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of military operations in a televised speech late Sunday night. He vowed to "tear up the black banners of strangers who usurped this city" and hoist the Iraqi flag.
Wearing the black uniform of Iraq's counter-terrorism forces, al-Abadi visited the Fallujah Operation Command and met with commanders the following morning.
Addressing the military leaders, he said the offensive achieved "more than what was planned for" and hailed the "big successes" by the troops on the ground, without elaborating on the operation. He added that the offensive had been planned to start more than two months ago, but was delayed due to the political infighting and the deteriorating security situation inside Baghdad.
The Shiite-led government has to deal with deepening political and social unrest in the capital over corruption and lack of public services. On Friday, clashes erupted between protesters and Iraqi security forces inside Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone, home to key Iraqi government ministries and foreign embassies, killing two people and wounding more than 100.
The offensive comes a week after Iraqi forces pushed IS out of the western town of Rutba, located 240 miles (380 kilometers) west of Baghdad, on the edge of Anbar province. Last month, Iraqi forces cleared territory along Anbar's Euphrates river valley after the provincial capital Ramadi was declared fully liberated earlier this year.
IS extremists still control significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including the country's second-largest city of Mosul. The group declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria and at the height of its power was estimated to hold nearly a third of Iraqi territory. Iraq's Prime Minister says the group's hold has since shrunk to 14 percent of Iraq.