Iraq declares victory against IS in Fallujah, Mosul next
While not fully under government control yet, Fallujah is the latest in a string of battlefields losses for IS, which has seen its two-year-old "caliphate" shrink significantly in recent months.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Friday that the city had been retaken after the national flag was raised over the main government compound, but IS fighters still hold most northern neighbourhoods.
"Iraqi forces have recaptured Fallujah [city centre], which is now under their control," Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, commander of the operation, told The New Arab.
"Daesh have withdrawn from most areas but continue to hold some position in northern Fallujah," Saadi said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
"Over 80 percent of Fallujah has been recaptured and it is expected that by tomorrow the process will be completed," Saadi added.
Forces led by the police of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, were meanwhile combing reconquered southern neighbourhoods for pockets of IS fighters and explosive devices, Saadi said.
Iraqi forces faced only limited resistance during the major advance that saw them push into the heart of Fallujah and clinch a breakthrough in the four-week-old operation.
"Fallujah, which was once one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Iraq, has now become a scene of utter destruction," Army Colonel Salem al-Falahi told The New Arab.
"There are civilian bodies on the streets and bodies of children, women and men under the rubble," Falahi said, "Some have been there for so long that they have rotted."
"Most Daesh militants have fled but some are still hiding in the city," he added.
|Fallujah, which was once one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Iraq, has now become a scene of utter destruction... There are civilian bodies on the streets and bodies of children, women and men under the rubble... Some have been there for so long that they have rotted
IS fighters have been slipping out of the city by blending in with civilians fleeing the fighting, security sources said.
IS's retreat in Fallujah sparked what the Norwegian Refugee Council described as "an unprecedented tidal wave of mass displacement from Fallujah."
It said late Friday that up to 20,000 people fled the city in just a few hours.
Footage on social media showed hundreds of people swimming across the Euphrates to reach safety.
"It is unknown how many families are still trapped inside Fallujah but we are concerned they are the most vulnerable – pregnant women, elderly people, people with disabilities," the NRC said.
Aid groups have been warning for days that they will be overwhelmed by the flow of displaced and were running low on funding and supplies to respond to the humanitarian crisis.
|Aid groups have been warning for days that they will be overwhelmed by the flow of displaced and were running low on funding and supplies to respond to the humanitarian crisis
Building on the momentum of the Fallujah operation, Iraq announced on Saturday that joint Kurdish-federal forces were starting a new phase in the push on Mosul from the south.
The fight for Mosul
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"The next target following Fallujah is Mosul," Major General Najim al-Jobori, commander of military operations in Nineveh northern Iraq told The New Arab, "We hope to recapture it before the end of the year."
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi confirmed on Saturday the start of a "second phase of the liberation of Nineveh."
"The target of the operation is to take Qayyarah and make it a launchpad for Mosul," Obeidi told AFP.
Qayyarah, which has an airfield, lies across the River Tigris from the main base for pro-government forces in the Kurdish-controlled area of Makhmur.
It is some 60 kilometres [35 miles] south of Mosul.
Abadi ignored US advice to focus on Mosul last month when he declared the launch of the Fallujah operation but he vowed on Friday that the liberation of the northern city was "very near."
|Abadi ignored US advice to focus on Mosul last month when he declared the launch of the Fallujah operation but he vowed on Friday that the liberation of the northern city was 'very near'
The embattled premier has promised that IS would be defeated nationwide by the end of 2016 but an ongoing offensive in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, has achieved only modest gains so far.
Fallujah, where US forces suffered some of their worst losses since the Vietnam War, looms large in modern extremist mythology, but Mosul is much larger.
Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, argued that IS could survive the loss of Fallujah.
"The ISIS (IS) messaging machine will likely find ways to continue attracting recruits and encouraging lone wolf attacks despite the loss of Fallujah," he said.
The militant group, which has recorded few military successes on home turf lately and grabbed more headlines for claiming attacks in the West, now faces major offensives on its Syria de facto capital Raqqa and on Mosul.
"Mosul and Raqqa could be very different battles since when they fall, the delusions of holding a caliphate completely fall away," said Patrick Skinner, an analyst with the Soufan Group.
Agencies contributed to this report.