ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Iraqi special forces entered Fallujah’s city centre on Friday morning, raising the Iraqi national flag over the main government complex and claiming to have liberated 70% of the city.
“Iraqi forces are now in the centre of the city. They had not been there since the beginning of 2014,” said Commander Brig. Haidar al-Obeidi of the Iraqi special forces.
“Iraqi forces have now liberated 70 percent of the city,” said Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, commander of the Fallujah operation.
As Iraqi forces moved in on al-Nazzal neighbourhood around 6am Friday morning, Islamic State militants appeared to flee, reported Obeidi to Associated Press, saying the group “collapsed.”
Saadi confirmed to AFP that Islamic State militants have not put up a strong fight on Friday.
“This operation was done with little resistance from Daesh,” he said, using an alternative name for ISIS. “There is a mass flight of Daesh to the west that explains this lack of resistance. There are only pockets of them left and we are hunting them down.”
A security officer, speaking to AFP anonymously, attributed ISIS’ weak resistance to the lack of leadership, saying that the top leaders and fighters have fled, “and those left behind to defend the city are not their best fighters.”
The Iraqi special forces seized a government complex from Islamic State militants as well as weapons warehouses. They are now using the government complex as a base, but are proceeding under the assumption that militants are hiding in nearby areas, Obeidi said.
Obeidi claimed there were no civilians in the al-Nazzal neighbourhood.
Special forces engaged with ISIS at a nearby hospital where it is believed some militants have set up a command centre on the third floor. Obeidi added that the whereabouts of the hospital’s patients are not known and there is no plan yet to storm the hospital.
Iraq’s federal police chief, Raed Shaker Jawdat, lauded the advance, telling AFP, “The liberation of the government compound, which is the main landmark in the city, symbolises the restoration of the state’s authority” in Fallujah.
An estimated 40,000 civilians have fled the city since the Iraqi forces’ offensive began in late May.
Recent army advances have allowed large numbers of civilians to escape, overwhelming aid agencies.
“Thousands of civilians from Fallujah are right now heading towards displacement camps in a dramatic development that is overwhelming emergency aid provision and services,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is running camps for the displaced near Fallujah.
Though the bulk of ISIS’ leadership and fighters may have fled the city, the escape route is still dangerous for civilians with many being killed or wounded by roadside bombs.
Security officials fear that many militants may have fled the city with thousands of civilians in recent days.