- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

Iraqi troops backed by American airpower on Monday began clearing areas in and around the strategic city of Fallujah in preparation for the final assault on the city, which U.S. officials claim is the last step toward flushing out the Islamic State from the volatile Anbar province.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who on Monday toured the Fallujah front line dressed in the all-black fatigues of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces, was already hailing “big successes” by government troops on the first full day of an offensive to retake the city from Islamic State militants. Government troops recaptured some agricultural areas in Garma, a district along the northeastern edge of Fallujah, said Col. Mahmoud al-Mardhi, who leads Shiite militia forces in the operation.

But the offensive comes amid withering Islamic State suicide attacks against Baghdad reportedly launched from the city, located 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital.

A combined force of Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen began “shaping operations” against Islamic State positions in areas surrounding the city, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday. These operations 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.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Monday there is “a great risk” for massive civilian casualties once local forces begin to move into the city in earnest. Recent reports claim fighters for Islamic State in Fallujah are co-opting the city’s residents as human shields to reinforce their defenses.

Roughly 1,000 Islamic State fighters remain in the city, the last major piece of territory held by the militants in Anbar province. Still firmly in Islamic State hands is Mosul, the country’s second largest city and one President Obama vowed would soon be reclaimed from the militants.

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American warplanes have escalated airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Fallujah, carrying out 21 strikes against the terror group’s positions since May 17, Capt. Davis told reporters at the Pentagon. Iraqi commanders have yet to request ground support from U.S. forces, but long-range artillery and mobile missile systems sent into Iraq in March will be available as the Fallujah operation progresses.

U.S. estimates claim the Islamic State has lost roughly 45 percent — or 9,600 square miles — of its territory inside Iraq as the group’s fighters steamrolled their way through Syria and northwest part of the country in 2014.

Fallujah, the scene of some of the most intense fighting between U.S. forces and the Iraqi insurgency during the American occupation of Iraq, has “become more of a distant outpost that has been hard to maintain” for Islamic State commanders, in the wake of those recent losses.

As a result, Iraqi military leaders and their U.S. counterparts have indicated a mass exodus of Islamic State fighters from Fallujah as local forces close in on the city. “This is the beginning of the end of ISIS in Anbar,” Capt. Davis said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

However it remains unclear whether the departure of Islamic State fighters from Fallujah was in response to Iraqi forces closing on the city, or a conscious decision by Islamic State leaders to shift those fighters to the defense of Mosul.

U.S. commanders in Iraq anticipate the push to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city, will begin in June.

But a rash of Islamic State bombings and suicide attacks targeting Baghdad, intended to further destabilize Mr. al-Abadi’s already fractured government, has raised questions over the timing of the Mosul offensive and the government’s ability to sustain an offensive.

Earlier this month, Iraqi officials sought to pull troops from Mosul and elsewhere to contain political protests in Baghdad, only to be talked out of that plan by American military advisers. Roughly half of the Iraqi Security Forces are based in Baghdad to provide security for the city, the remainder of those forces have been deployed to front lines near Mosul, Fallujah and elsewhere in the country.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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