Iraqi forces retake Fallujah govt headquarters

BAGHDAD • Iraqi forces raised the national flag over the main government compound in Fallujah, top commanders said, a breakthrough in the nearly four-week-old offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) bastion.

They met limited resistance from ISIS fighters, who were fleeing the city, the commanders told news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), leaving the organisation on the brink of losing one of the most emblematic strongholds in its two-year-old "caliphate".

It is the latest setback for the extremists, who have also lost territory in neighbouring Syria and Libya in recent weeks, although United States Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan warned on Thursday that they remain a formidable force with global reach.

"The counter-terrorism service and the rapid response forces have retaken the government compound in the centre of Fallujah," the operation's overall commander, Lieutenant-General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, told AFP.

He said the Iraqi flag was raised above government buildings in the compound and claimed that "Iraqi forces have now liberated 70 per cent of the city".

In the deserted, recently reconquered neighbourhoods of the insurgent bastion known in Iraq as the "City of Mosques", elite forces were consolidating positions, stocking up on food and weapons.

Dozens of bodies of dead ISIS fighters were left to rot under blankets amid the rubble of homes destroyed by air strikes, rockets or controlled explosions of the hundreds of bombs the extremists themselves laid across the city.

The government lost control of Fallujah in 2014, months before ISIS took second city Mosul and swept across large parts of the country.

Fallujah, which lies just 50km west of Baghdad, is one of ISIS' key historical bastions and its loss would leave Mosul as the only major Iraqi city under its control. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to defeat ISIS nationwide by the end of the year.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to leave their homes since the start of the operation last month. The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs camps for the displaced near Fallujah, said the sudden influx meant relief was drying up fast.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Iraqi forces retake Fallujah govt headquarters'. Print Edition | Subscribe