Islamic State militants fought vigorously overnight between Monday and Tuesday against the Iraqi army's onslaught in the southern district of the city of Fallujah, army officers said on Tuesday. Fallujah, in Anbar province, is the terrorist group's major outpost closest to the capital Baghdad. Islamic State has been holding Fallujah since 2014.
But as Iraqi troops and IS militants battle it out for the city, one aid official has warned of the "human catastrophe" that is unfolding in Fallujah, with residents unable to escape from the heavy fighting.
A staff member of Fallujah's main hospital said it received reports of 32 civilians killed on Monday. During the first week of the offensive, which began on May 23, medical sources reported the death toll in the city to be around 30 civilians and 20 militants.
Overnight, soldiers from the elite Rapid Response Team paused on the outskirts of the southeastern part of the city, about 500 meters from the al-Shuhada district, an army commander and a police officer said.
"Our forces came under fire, they [IS] are well dug in trenches and tunnels," the commander said from Camp Tariq, an army base south of Fallujah and about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad. IS launched a vicious counter attack after Iraqi forces, backed by US air support, on Monday successfully advanced towards the southern edge of Fallujah and captured a police station inside the city limits.
Two officers with the special forces told the Associated Press that IS militants used tunnels and snipers, and sent six explosives-laden cars to hit Iraqi troops, but those were destroyed before they could reach their targets.
Aid agencies have become increasingly alarmed about civilian suffering in a city that has been under siege for six months, and the United Nations has urged combatants to protect inhabitants trying to escape the fighting. The latest offensive is of particular concern because more than 50,000 civilians remain trapped with limited access to water, food and health care.
"A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out," said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the organizations helping families displaced from the city.
"For nine days we have heard of only one single family managing to escape from inside the town,'' he said in a statement on Tuesday. "Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it's too late and more lives are lost."
Fallujah is the second-largest Iraqi city still under control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north, which had a pre-war population of about 2 million.
Last week, the chairman of Fallujah's local council, Isa al-Isawi, told the Associated Press that around 600 people had managed to escape the city. "It is not going to be an easy fighting at all," Isawi told AP from a refugee camp outside the city. "We heard from people who escaped from the city how ISIS [Islamic State] militants are prepared for this battle. Peaceful locals are the only victims of this fighting."
"I'm afraid ISIS is going to use [Fallujah residents] as human shields to prevent the Iraqi forces from retaking the city," he said.
Iraqi counterterrorism forces leading the assault on Fallujah are making a slow advance because of the numbers of trapped civilians and rising concerns about the possibility that hidden explosive devices are planted throughout the city, AP reports.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the assault on Fallujah on May 22, after a spate of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the worst death toll so far this year. A series of bombings claimed by Islamic State also hit Baghdad on Monday, killing more than 20 people.
Fallujah has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the US occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.
It would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after Saddam's hometown Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast western Anbar province.
Fallujah is also in Anbar, located between Ramadi and Baghdad. Capturing it would give the government control of the major population centers of the Euphrates River valley west of the capital for the first time in more than two years.