FALLUJAH // With victory declared in Fallujah, Iraqi forces opened a second front on Saturday in preparation for an assault on Mosul, which is still in ISIL hands.
The government forces are advancing along a desert path west of the main motorway linking Baghdad to Mosul, which is lined with mines and runs through villages that have a heavy ISIL presence, said Col. Mohammed Al-Assadi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
While not fully under government control yet, Fallujah is the latest in a string of battlefield defeats for ISIL which has seen its two-year-old “caliphate” shrink significantly in recent months.
Prime minister Haider Al-Abadi on Friday declared Fallujah retaken after the national flag was raised over the main government compound, but ISIL fighters still hold some neighbourhoods in the northern sector.
Elite Iraqi forces “are continuing their progress in the liberation of neighbourhoods in northern Fallujah”, said Lieutenant General Abdulwahab Al-Saadi, overall commander of the operation.
Forces led by the police of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, were meanwhile combing reconquered southern neighbourhoods for pockets of ISIL fighters and explosive devices, he said.
Lt-Gen Saadi and other commanders said Iraqi forces faced only limited resistance during the major advance that saw them push into the heart of Fallujah and secure a breakthrough in the four-week-old operation. Iraqi troops took on the insurgents along Baghdad Street, the main east-west route through Fallujah, firing rockets at their positions and taking sniper fire and mortar rounds.
Counter-terrorism forces took control of Fallujah hospital, a known ISIL nest, sending the militants running but not before they had set fire to large sections of the building. Live footage broadcast on state television from outside the hospital showed smoke rising from the hospital and elite commandos celebrating with an Iraqi flag.
With eyes now turning to Mosul, ISIL’s so-called capital, elite counter-terrorism forces and two army divisions, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, advanced from a northern refinery town towards an airfield seen as key for retaking what is the second-largest city in northern Iraq.
Defence Minister Khaled Al-Obaidi said the assault marked the launch of operations to push ISIL out of Qayara, about 115km north of Baiji, where an airfield could serve as the staging ground for a future offensive on Mosul, which lies a further 60km north.
“The launch of operations to liberate Qayara will not give the terrorists a chance to catch their breath,” Obaidi said on Twitter alongside a picture of Humvee military lorries snaking down a desert road. The desert route also leads the troops further away from the Makhoul mountains east of Baiji, from which ISIL has been launching mortars in and around the town for months.
Prime minister Abadi has said Iraqi forces will retake Mosul this year but, in private, many question whether the army, which partially collapsed when Islamic State overran a third of the country in June 2014, will be ready in time.
Government troops cleared two villages and pressed around 20 kilometres along a desert route west of Baiji, the first advance past the town since its recapture in October, according to security officials.
Colonel Mohammed Abdulla of Salahuddin operations command said the extremists fired mortar rounds in an attempt to slow the advance, killing two policemen and wounding three soldiers.
Two suicide car bombs were taken out by air strikes before reaching their targets, though dusty weather was making it difficult to target militants and slowing the advance, military sources said.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition said Apache attack helicopters were deployed in support of Iraqi forces in the Tigris river valley, the site of the advance.
Army troops on a separate front pushing west from Makhmour for the past three months have made only halting progress on the opposite side of the Tigris river.
* Agence France Presse