Iraqi troops and Shi’ite Muslim militia forces attacked Islamic State fighters on several fronts in the country’s largest province on Monday, saying the battle to drive the hardline militants out of Anbar was under way.
A spokesman for the joint operations command said the offensive, which began at dawn, brought together the army, mainly Shi’ite Hashid Shaabi militias, special forces, police and local Sunni Muslim tribal fighters.
Military sources in Anbar said they met fierce resistance from the insurgents, who deployed five suicide car bombs and fired rockets to repel their advance on the city of Falluja, about 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
There were also reports of fighting around the provincial capital Ramadi, captured by Islamic State two months ago.
“At 5 o’clock this morning operations to liberate Anbar were launched,” the military spokesman said.
Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi two months ago marked the biggest defeat for the Baghdad government since the militants swept through the north of the country last June and declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq straddling the border.
Until Ramadi’s fall, Iraqi troops and Hashid Shaabi forces, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, had been pushing Islamic State back, recapturing the eastern province of Diyala and former leader Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, with the ultimate target of retaking the northern city of Mosul.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, angered at the army’s withdrawal from Ramadi in mid-May, initially promised a swift counter-attack.
Although Ramadi remains the strategic target, military sources and Shi’ite militia leaders have said the initial focus will be on Falluja, which was the first city in Iraq to fall under militant control 18 months ago.
FIRST JETS ARRIVE FROM U.S.
A U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab air forces has been bombing Islamic State positions across Iraq, supporting Baghdad’s ground forces and its poorly equipped air force.
Iraq has sought to redress its own lack of air power by purchasing F-16 fighter jets from the United States, but deliveries of the 36 aircraft were delayed because of security concerns after the Islamic State offensive last summer.
On Monday, a first batch of four F-16s landed at Balad air base north of Baghdad, an Iraqi air force officer said.
It was not clear whether the planes would take an immediate role in the operations in Anbar.
Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the largest Shi’ite force, the Badr Organisation, told Iraqi television on Sunday he expected the main assault on Falluja to take place after the Eid holiday which starts later this week.
Residents in Falluja and Ramadi reported heavy bombardment of both cities early on Monday.
Falluja saw the fiercest fighting of the U.S. occupation which followed Washington’s 2003 invasion to topple Saddam, and has also been a centre of Sunni hostility to the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
Abadi initially sought to keep Shi’ite militias on the sidelines in Anbar for fear of inflaming sectarian sensitivities, but the fall of Ramadi in May undermined his position.
In Baghdad on Sunday at least 35 people were killed in a series of car bombs and suicide attacks in mainly Shi’ite districts. A statement in the name of Islamic State, issued on Monday, claimed responsibility for some of the blasts.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed in Baghdad, and Isabel Coles in Erbil; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)