A senior Iraqi commander declared that the city of Fallujah was "fully liberated" from DAESH militants on Sunday, after an over month-long military operation. Iraqi troops have entered the northwestern al-Julan neighborhood, the last area of Fallujah to remain under DAESH control, the head of counter-terrorism forces in the operation, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told The Associated Press.
Al-Saadi said the operation, which began in late May, "is done and the city is fully liberated." The Iraqi army was backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops, mostly Shiite militias.
"From the center of al-Julan neighborhood, we congratulate the Iraqi people and the commander in chief ... and declare that the Fallujah fight is over," he told Iraqi state TV, flanked by military officers and soldiers. Some of the soldiers were shooting in the air, chanting and waving the Iraqi flag. He added that troops will start working on removing bombs from the city's streets and buildings.
The announcement comes more than a week after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Fallujah after Iraqi forces advanced into the city center and took control of a government complex. While al-Abadi pledged the remaining pockets of DAESH fighters would be cleared out within hours, fierce clashes on the city's northern and western edges persisted for days. The operation has fueled an exodus of thousands of families, overwhelming camps for the displaced run by the government and aid groups.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 85,000 people have fled Fallujah and the surrounding area since the offensive began. Like other aid agencies, the UNHCR warned of the dire conditions in the camps, where temperatures are well over 40 degrees Celsius and shelter is limited, calling for more funds to meet the mounting needs of the displaced. There are no figures on the number of civilian casualties during the Fallujah operation but they are believed to be much lower than when U.S. forces stormed the city in 2004.
Fallujah has been under the control of DAESH militants since January 2014. Fallujah, which is located in Anbar province about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, was the first city to fall to DAESH in January 2014.
Iraq has suffered a security vacuum since mid-2014, when DAESH captured the northern city of Mosul and overran large swathes of territory in the northern and western parts of the country. Iraqi security forces launched a major offensive on May 22-23 to retake Fallujah, one of DAESH's most emblematic bastions, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
DAESH still controls significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including Mosul.
In total, more than 3.3 million Iraqis have fled their homes since DAESH swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, according to U.N. figures. More than 40 percent of the displaced are from Anbar province.