Iraqi forces raised the national flag over the main government compound in Fallujah on Friday, top commanders said, a breakthrough in the nearly four-week-old offensive against the Islamic State group’s bastion.
They met limited resistance from IS fighters, who were fleeing the city, the commanders said, 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 militants who have also lost territory in neighbouring Syria and in Libya in recent weeks, although US 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, said.
Raed Shaker Jawdat, Iraq’s federal police chief, confirmed the advance.
“The liberation of the government compound, which is the main landmark in the city, symbolises the restoration of the state’s authority” in Fallujah, he said.
Saadi said the Iraqi flag was raised above government buildings in the compound and claimed that “Iraqi forces have now liberated 70% 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 IS fighters were left to rot under blankets amid the rubble of homes destroyed by airstrikes, rockets or controlled explosions of the hundreds of bombs the militants themselves laid across the city.
The government lost control of Fallujah in 2014, months before the IS took second city Mosul and swept across large parts of the country.
Fallujah, which lies just 50 km west of Baghdad, is one of IS’ key historical bastions and its loss would leave Mosul as the only major Iraqi city under its control.