BAGHDAD: The Iraqi army stormed to the southern edge of Falluja under US air support on Monday and captured a police station inside the city limits, launching a direct assault to retake one of the main strongholds of Islamic State militants.
A Reuters TV crew about 1.5 km from the city’s edge said explosions and gunfire were ripping through Naimiya, a district of Falluja on its southern outskirts.
An elite military unit, the Rapid Response Team, seized the district’s police station at midday, state television reported.
The battle for Falluja is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever fought against the IS, in the city where US forces waged the heaviest battles of their 2003-2011 occupation against the Sunni Muslim militant group’s precursors.
Falluja is Islamic State’s closest bastion to Baghdad, and believed to be the base from which the group has plotted an escalating campaign of suicide bombings against Shia civilians and government targets inside the capital.
As government forces pressed their onslaught, suicide bombers driving a car and a motorcycle and another bomb planted in a car killed more than 20 people and injured more than 50 in three districts of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.
The Iraqi army launched its operation to recover Falluja a week ago, first by tightening a six-month-old siege around the city 50 km west of Baghdad.
Falluja, in the heartland of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent the Shia-led government in Baghdad, was the first Iraqi city to fall to the IS in January 2014. Months later, the group overran wide areas of the north and west of Iraq, declaring a caliphate including parts of neighbouring Syria.