FALLUJAH (Web Desk) – The US-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces has surrounded Fallujah and carried out 20 strikes against IS militants over the past four days.
According to the US military, at least 70 Islamic State militants including the group’s commander in the city were killed, while security forces have safely evacuated many residents away from the outskirts of the city – but some 50,000 people are still trapped inside.
Maher al-Bilawi, commander of Islamic State fighters in Falluja, was killed on Wednesday, said Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US-led military campaign against ISIS.
Meanwhile, a Shia militia leader said the final battle to recapture the Islamic State stronghold near Baghdad will start in “days, not weeks”, as new reports emerged of people starving to death in the besieged Sunni city, the Guardian reported.
The first phase of the offensive that started on Monday has nearly finished, with the complete encirclement of the city that lies 50km west of the Iraqi capital, said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation.
Wearing military fatigues, Amiri spoke to state TV from the operations area with the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, standing by his side in the black uniform of Iraq’s counter-terrorism force.
At the end of last year, Abadi said 2016 would be the year of the final victory over Islamic State, which declared a caliphate two years ago in the territory that it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Falluja is a bastion of the insurgency that fought the US occupation of Iraq and the Shia-led authorities that replaced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
It was the first city captured by Islamic State in Iraq, in January 2014, and is the second-largest still held by the militants after Mosul, their de facto capital.
Amiri said this week the Shia paramilitary coalition known as Popular Mobilisation would only take part in the encirclement operations, and would let the army storm Falluja.
It would only enter the city if the army’s attack failed.
Amiri called on civilians to leave from a south-western exit called al-Salam (Peace) Junction. But the United Nations said on Friday about 50,000 civilians were being prevented by the hardline Sunni militants from escaping.
Those who did manage to flee the city reported some people were dying of starvation, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council on Thursday reported similar accounts from displaced people interviewed at a camp near Falluja.
“Food has been in very short supply. We are hearing accounts that people are relying on expired rice and dried dates and that’s about it for their diet,” a UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, told a news briefing in Geneva.