Iraqi commander declares defeat of Islamic State in Falluja

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Iraqi Commander: Fallujah 'Fully Liberated' from ISIS


FALLUJA, Iraq, June 26 (Reuters) - Iraqi forces recaptured the last district held by Islamic State militants in the city of Falluja on Sunday and the general commanding the operation declared the battle complete after nearly five weeks of fighting.

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Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed victory in Falluja more than a week ago, but clashes continued inside the city west of Baghdad, including in its central Golan district.

The assault is part of a wider offensive by Iraqi forces against Islamic State which seized swathes of territory in the country in 2014. A U.S.-led coalition has been supporting the offensive, mostly in the form of air strikes.

"We announce from this place in central Golan district that it has been cleaned by the counter terrorism service and we convey the good news to the Iraqi people that the battle of Falluja is over," Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi told state TV.

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A member of the peshmerga forces inspects a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Iraqi soldiers look a tunnel build by Islamic State fighters in a building destroyed by an airstrike in a village of Mahana some 60 km south of Mosul, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters in a village of Har Bardun, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle as he look a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization look at a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization stand near a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization walk past a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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Flanked by jubilant fighters, some waving Iraqi flags, Saidi said a few militants were still holding out in buildings. At least 1,800 Islamic State fighters were killed in the operation to retake Falluja and the rest had fled, he said.

The swift entry of Iraqi forces into central Falluja last week surprised many who expected a drawn-out battle with Islamic State for the bastion of Sunni insurgency, where some of the toughest fighting of the U.S. occupation took place after 2003.

The success of the Falluja operation launched on May 23 gives fresh momentum to Iraqi forces in the campaign to retake Mosul -- Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq and by far the largest city in their self-proclaimed caliphate.

Speaking from the newly recaptured Golan district, army Colonel Ahmed al-Saidi described seeing torn Islamic State banners and discarded weapons. "Falluja has returned to us and Daesh's existence is becoming history," he said by telephone. "The next defeat of Daesh will be in Mosul."

Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the counter-terrorism forces that spearheaded the offensive told Reuters the insurgents had put up limited resistance in Falluja and folded after some of their commanders abandoned the fight.

Iraqi forces were now working to dismantle bombs and booby-trapped houses, whilst pursuing militants who slipped out of the city from the northwest, Numani said.

Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi said on Twitter around 90 percent of Falluja remained "safe and habitable," comparing that favorably with the cities of Ramadi and Sinjar, which were recaptured from Islamic State but destroyed in the process.

Fighting to recapture the Iraqi city has forced more than 85,000 residents to flee to overwhelmed government-run camps. The United Nations says it has received allegations of abuse of civilians fleeing the city, including by members of Shi'ite armed groups supporting the offensive.

The militants seized Falluja in January 2014, six months before they declared a "caliphate" over parts of Syria and Iraq.

The mayor of Falluja told Reuters that displaced families could return to the city within two months if the government and intentional aid agencies provided assistance.

"The city doesn't requires just rebuilding its infrastructure but also serious rehabilitation of its society," said Esa al-Esawi.

"Daesh (another name for Islamic State) worked to brainwash people and we need serious programs by the international community to help people get rid of Daesh's deviant ideologies and restore their normal life." (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)


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