Elite Iraqi troops were poised Sunday to assault one of the Islamic State group’s most emblematic bastions, Fallujah, as the jihadists counterattacked in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The fighting prompted a new exodus of thousands of desperate civilians and deep concern for the many more trapped in the battlegrounds.
The overall commander of the Fallujah operation, Abdelwahab al-Saadi, said Saturday it was a matter of hours before the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) entered the city.
The week-old operation has so far focused on retaking villages and rural areas around the city, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
“I won’t tell you hours but the breach of Fallujah will happen very soon,” Hadi al-Ameri, a senior commander in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, told Iraqi television.
“Daesh attacked Heet to ease the pressure on their fighters inside Fallujah, especially following the announcement that CTS had arrived,” the statement said.
In northern Syria, the jihadists have launched an offensive against the towns of Marea and Azaz that threatens to overrun the last swathe of territory in the east of Aleppo province held by non-jihadist rebels.
It would also bring IS to the doorstep of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
As the fighting raged on multiple fronts, civilians were once again bearing the brunt of the conflict.
At least 29 civilians have been killed since IS launched the assault in Aleppo province early on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
More than 6,000 civilians fled into the countryside, it said.
“We are receiving hundreds of displaced Iraqis from the outskirts of Fallujah who are totally exhausted, afraid and hungry,” said Nasr Muflahi, NRC’s Iraq director.