Coalition strikes kill ISIL commander in Fallujah

Maher Al Bilawi was among more than 70 ISIL fighters killed in four days of strikes on Iraqi city.

Pro-government forces fighters fire a rocket in Al Sejar village in Iraq’s Anbar province on May 27, 2016, as they take part in a major assault to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIL. Ahmad Al Rubaye /AFP
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Washington // The ISIL commander in Fallujah was killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes on the Iraqi city, a military spokesman said on Friday.

“We’ve killed more than 70 enemy fighters, including Maher Al Bilawi, who is the commander of ISIL forces in Fallujah,” Col Steve Warren said.

“This, of course, won’t completely cause the enemy to stop fighting, but it’s a blow. And it creates confusion and it causes the second-in-command to have to move up. It causes other leadership to have to move around,” he said.

Twenty strikes on the besieged city destroyed ISIL fighting positions and gun emplacements over the past four days, he said.

Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Fallujah from ISIL at the start of the week.

Between 500 and 1,000 ISIL fighters hold Fallujah, and about 50,000 civilians are trapped inside the city, with the extremists trying to kill those who attempt to flee.

US planes have dropped leaflets telling residents to avoid ISIL areas, Col Warren said.

“Those leaflets directed those who cannot leave to put white sheets on their roofs to mark their locations. The Iraqi army is working hard to establish evacuation routes. And the local Anbar government has set up camps for displaced civilians.”

Meanwhile, a leader of a Shiite militia helping government troops to recapture Fallujah said the final battle for the city would start in “days, not weeks’’.

The first phase of the offensive that started on Monday is nearly finished, with the city completely encircled, said Hadi Al Amiri, the leader of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation.

Mr Al Amiri spoke to Iranian state TV from the operations area with prime minister Haider Al Abadi standing by his side.

At the end of last year, Mr Al Abadi said this year would be the year of the final victory over ISIL, which declared a caliphate over adjacent Iraqi and Syrian territories two years ago.

Fallujah is a bastion of the insurgency that fought the US occupation of Iraq and the Shiite-led authorities that replaced Sunni leader Saddam Hussein.

Mr Al Amiri said this week that the Shiite paramilitary coalition known as Popular Mobilisation would take part in the encirclement operations, but would let the army storm Fallujah.

Popular Mobilisation would enter the city only if the army’s attack failed, he said.

The army has defused more than 250 explosive devices planted by ISIL on roads and in villages to delay the troops advance toward Fallujah, state TV said, citing military officers.

The imminent assault on Fallujah has raised fears for civilians trapped there. The UN on Friday said they were being prevented from escaping by ISIL.

Mr Al Amiri called on civilians to leave the city from a an exit called the Al Salam Junction.

Only about 800 people have managed to flee so far, mostly from the outlying areas of Fallujah, said Melissa Fleming, from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

“Food has been in very short supply. We are hearing accounts that people are relying on expired rice and dried dates and that’s about it for their diet. They have to rely on unsafe water sources, including drainage water from the irrigation canals.”

The death toll since the start of the military operation on Monday has reached about 50, including 30 civilians and 20 militants, a source in the city’s main hospital said on Friday.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, on Friday called on forces battling to retake the city to protect civilians trapped there.

“Saving innocent people from harm’s way is the most important thing, even more so than targeting the enemy,” Mr Al Sistani said in a comments delivered by his representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala.

The UNHCR said the plight of civilians in Fallujah has triggered an exodus from Mosul, the other main Iraqi city held by ISIL.

More than 4,200 Iraqis from Mosul fled to Syria this month, and as many as 50,000 more are expected to leave the ISIL-held city and cross the border, Ms Fleming said.

She said the mass flight appeared to be driven by reports that ISIL had stepped up executions of men and boys in Fallujah after the Iraqi government offensive to retake the city. Iraqi forces, with help from a US-led coalition, are expected to push later this year to retake Mosul, ISIL’s de facto capital in Iraq.

“We’ve actually seen a spike in the numbers of Iraqi refugees who are risking the dangerous crossing into Syria in desperation. Just picture this, we have refugees fleeing to Syria.

“So it’s a desperate bid to ­escape ISIL-held Mosul,” Ms Fleming said.

“The reasons for that are the pending battle to retake it. They, I’m sure, hear what’s going on in Fallujah and want to leave before they too are trapped. But also there is fighting in the surrounding areas that is driving people to leave.”

The 4,266 Iraqi refugees from Mosul, who walked for several days through extremist-held territory into Syria’s Kurdish-held Hassakeh province, “are living now in relative safety, if you can say that for Syria”, Ms Fleming said.

The refugees are being housed at Al Hol camp, about 14km from the Iraq border.

“Right now it’s a bit over 4,000 but it is in anticipation of 50,000. There are contingencies for potential numbers who could be coming in ... They don’t have many other options of places to flee in that region, so we’re getting ready.”

The UNHCR has begun a five-day operation to fly in aid supplies from Jordan to Qamishli in Hassakeh, where it will be loaded on to lorries for distribution to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Syrians.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters