NEAR FALLUJAH (Iraq) • Iraqi forces struggled yesterday to break into Fallujah's city centre where hundreds of fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and some 50,000 increasingly desperate civilians were holed up.
Fighting also raged hundreds of kilometres further up the Euphrates Valley in Syria as US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters opened a new front against ISIS militants in the strategic Manbij pocket on the Turkish border.
Elite Iraqi forces positioned on the edge of Fallujah, which has been an ISIS stronghold, met fierce resistance from besieged militants seemingly condemned to making a suicidal last stand.
"Our forces are still pushing to break into the city centre but there is tough resistance from Daesh," said Lieutenant-General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the overall commander of the operation, using an Arab acronym for ISIS.
After a week of shaping operations aimed at sealing the siege of Fallujah, which lies just 50km west of Baghdad, elite forces launched a new, more aggressive phase on Monday morning. But so far they have been unable to reach the city centre and battle ISIS fighters in the streets.
"Every time our forces try to push in, they encounter really tough defence systems set up by Daesh," said a police colonel, speaking on the outskirts of Fallujah.
HARD TO BREAK
Our forces are still pushing to break into the city centre but there is tough resistance from Daesh.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL ABDELWAHAB AL-SAADI, the overall commander of the operation, using an Arab acronym for ISIS.
The closest that Iraqi forces have come to moving into the centre is from the south, where they entered a suburb but were pinned back by a massive counter-attack on Tuesday.
Iraqi commanders claim they have killed dozens of ISIS fighters since the start of the operation but have been coy about releasing their own casualty figures.
Yet the number of coffins being sent back to some of Iraq's southern provinces, and the number of burials reported in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, suggest that the anti-ISIS camp is also paying a heavy price.
"Since the start of the operation, we have received about 70 martyrs, probably a bit more," said a member of the security forces posted outside Najaf's Valley of Peace, the world's largest cemetery, where many from Iraq's Shi'ite majority bury their dead.
Officials in Basra said the southern province had lost 26 fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force alone. An official in Najaf province said that 12 from the area had been killed.
Medics in Baghdad have also reported many wounded from the battle for Fallujah.
Inside Fallujah, tens of thousands of trapped residents are under increasing pressure from worsening shortages and nervous ISIS fighters preparing for a desperate hold-out. The United Nations Children's Fund said at least 20,000 of them are believed to be children, who are most vulnerable to the dire living conditions and to forced recruitment as fighters.
"Children who are recruited see their lives and futures jeopardised as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting in an adult war," said the agency's Iraq representative, Mr Peter Hawkins.
No aid has reached Fallujah since September last year and residents have been living on dates, dirty water from the Euphrates River and animal feed.