Falluja warned ahead of anti-IS attack

Iraqi soldiers guard a position on the front line against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists near Fallujah, in Iraqs Anbar province, on May 3, 2016Image copyright
AFP/Getty Images

Image caption

Troops, police and volunteer fighters virtually surround Falluja

Iraq’s military has warned civilians to leave Falluja as it prepares an assault on the city held by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Falluja was the first city to fall to the group in January 2014, and is one of only two of its remaining strongholds in Iraq.

Iraq’s military told state television said those who could not flee should raise a white flag above their homes.

The military, police and volunteer fighters virtually surround the city.

The Baghdad-based pro-Kurdish news website Shafaq said on Sunday that close to 20,000 police troops had arrived on the outskirts of Falluja ahead of the expected assault.

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The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jim Muir, said between 60-90,000 civilians remained in Falluja, which is about 50km (30 miles) west of Baghdad. Many of them are family members of IS fighters, he said.

IS militants launched a sweeping offensive in June 2014 that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, but security forces and allied fighters have pushed the jihadists back with support from US-led air strikes.

Iraq’s military seized the nearby city of Ramadi from Islamic State in December.

Analysis: Jim Muir, BBC News, Baghdad

The Iraqi army, police and irregular forces virtually surround Falluja and have been heavily reinforced in preparation for an assault on several fronts that military sources say could begin in the next day or so, and which they expect to to last two or three weeks.

That may be optimistic, given the many weeks it took earlier this year to take full control of Ramadi, another city further to the west.

Falluja has been held by the militants of IS much longer, for nearly two and a half years, and has withstood a massive battering by government shelling and bombing.

But Iraqi military sources believe the number of militants there has been cut roughly in half and that the battle for Falluja will be a lot less tough than it was for Ramadi.

Should IS lose Falluja, it would leave the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as its only Iraqi stronghold. It continues to hold large parts of territory in neighbouring Syria, though that amount is also dwindling.

Media captionThe Iraqi government has been urged to lift the siege on Falluja, as Ahmed Maher reports

Last month, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch warned civilians still living in Falluja were in danger of starvation.

The World Food Programme said stocks were dwindling as government forces trying to recapture the city had cut supply routes, and IS had stopped people from leaving.

Some residents were eating grass to survive, HRW said.

One report in Vox.com said that a 110lb (50kg) bag of flour, which costs about $7.50 in the US, had been sold for as much as $4,166 (£2,925; €3,650).

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