(SOURCE) The Iraqi army stormed to the southern edge of Falluja under U.S. 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 a mile (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 Islamic State, in the city where U.S. 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 Shi’ite 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.
Separately, Kurdish security forces announced advances against Islamic State in northern Iraq, capturing villages from militants outside Mosul, the biggest city under militant control.
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 (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
Falluja, in the heartland of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014. Months later, the group overran wide areas of the north and west of Iraq, declaring a caliphate including parts of neighboring Syria.
On Monday, army units advanced to the city’s southern entrance, “steadily advancing” under air cover from a U.S.-led coalition helping to fight against the militants, according to a military statement read out on state TV.
A Shi’ite militia coalition known as Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi, was seeking to consolidate the siege by dislodging militants from Saqlawiya, a village just to the north of Falluja.
The militias, who took the lead in assaults against Islamic State in other parts of Iraq last year, have pledged not to take part in the assault on the mainly Sunni Muslim city itself to avoid aggravating sectarian strife.