Iraqi Army begins operation to retake Fallujah

Iraq's Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a military operation to retake the Islamic State stronghold

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File photo. Image: Ben Birchall / PA Archive/PA Images

Iraq's Prime Minister has announced the start of a military operation to retake Fallujah from so-called IS militants.

Haider al Abadi said on his official Twitter feed: "Zero hour for the liberation of Fallujah has arrived.

"The moment of great victory has drawn near and Daesh (ISIS) has no choice but to flee".

He also posted a photo of himself surrounded by the country's military commanders.

In a statement, he added: "The Iraqi flag will be raised high over the land of Fallujah."

Mr al Abadi said the offensive would be conducted by the army, police, counter-terrorism forces, local tribal fighters and coalition of mostly Shia Muslim militias.

It is also suspected that there will be air support from a US-led coalition. Local media reported heavy shelling in the city's south.

Shia militias, including those backed by neighbouring Iran, may have to stay outside the city's boundaries to avoid tensions with Fallujah's Sunni residents.

The operation's launch came a day after Iraq's military warned civilians to leave the city.

It is estimated that around 75,000 people remain in Fallujah, compared to a pre-war population of around 300,000.

Three escape paths were to be opened for civilians leading to camps west, southwest and southeast of the city.

Fallujah is about 40 miles west of Baghdad and has been under IS control since January 2014.

The Iraqi army, police and militias have had the city surrounded since late last year, while IS fighters have prevented many of the city's residents from leaving.

Residents told Reuters that about 20 families had tried to leave the city's south after receiving the warnings to leave but only half of them escaped - some were caught by IS and others were killed by explosives planted along the road by jihadists.

Iraqi ground troops have made gains against IS across the country, recently capturing the town of Rutba, 240 miles west of Baghdad.

Taking Fallujah would secure the road which stretches around 300 miles from Baghdad to the Jordanian border and to Haditha, 115 miles northwest of the capital.

However, the Islamist militants still control large patches of Iraq's north and west, including the second largest city of Mosul, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year.