- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Iraqi assault to retake the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah stalled Wednesday after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi halted operations over concerns the city’s 50,000 inhabitants would be caught in the crossfire.

“It would have been possible to end the battle quickly if protecting civilians wasn’t among our priorities,” Mr. al-Abadi told military commanders after the decision was made to halt the Iraqi military’s advance, Reuters reported.

“Thank God, our units are at the outskirts of Fallujah and victory is within reach,” he added.

Taking up positions along the eastern and southern outskirts Fallujah, Iraqi security forces were poised to drive into the heart of the city within the coming days. Arab Sunni and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militiamen were also expected to move into the southern portion of city, 40 miles east of Baghdad, as part of the assault.

With operations now suspended, it remains unclear as to when Iraqi and coalition forces will retake the last major city under Islamic State control in the volatile Anbar province.

American military advisers assisting local forces in coordinating the Fallujah operation say the fight for the city will be the toughest and most grueling of the entire Anbar campaign.

Initial reports from front-line units indicate the fight for Fallujah will be akin to the long, drawn-out battles triggered by the Islamic State’s aggressive defense of Ramadi and Kobani in Syria, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.

In both battles, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, suffered staggering losses before eventually ceding to local troops and militias.

“The last two days have shown they intend to put up a fight” not seen in recent operations to retake the key cities of Hit and Rutba in Anbar province from Islamic State control, Capt. Davis said.

Local forces kicked off “shaping operations” in areas surrounding the city last week, which included securing staging areas in the towns and villages surrounding Fallujah, as well as attempting to evacuate as many of the 50,000 civilians inhabiting the city as possible before the pending assault.

Recent reports claim fighters for Islamic State in Fallujah are co-opting the city’s residents as human shields to reinforce their defenses.

In May, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned there would be “a great risk” for massive civilian casualties once local forces begin to move into Fallujah in earnest.

Iraqi forces based in the Nuaimiya district south of Fallujah repelled a fierce Islamic State counterattack Saturday, a day after local forces retook the area. The militants reportedly used underground tunnels and positioned snipers and six car bombs in an attempt to break the Iraqi lines in the district.

The militants reportedly herded civilians into a single neighborhood in Nuaimiya for use as human shields, The Associated Press reported.

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