HIT, Iraq (AP) — As they advanced on the Islamic State-held town of Hit, Iraqi counterterrorism troops had to decide how to press the attack. If they stormed in with armor and airstrikes, they risked heavy casualties and might allow the militants to flee.
Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, the commander of the elite troops, chose a different approach: Surround the strategic western town with a slow and methodical cordon, trapping the extremists inside.
It's a tactic that's been used elsewhere to claw back Iraqi territory that was seized by the Islamic State group in 2014.
While the decision may have been more time-consuming, allowing the militants in Hit to dig in, lay defenses and launch attacks that initially also trapped tens of thousands of civilians, Iraqi forces believe the approach is a key to making their territorial gains stick and reduce their casualties.
Six counterterrorism battalions pushed up from the west last weekend to cut off Hit's northern edge, zigzagging in the soft desert terrain and taking more than 12 hours to advance only a few kilometers (miles).
"We don't want them to be able to flee," al-Asadi said, referring to the IS fighters. "We want them to stay inside so we can finish them."
If the militants escaped, he said, they would probably return and infiltrate the town once his men had moved on to the next battle.
Hit, in Anbar province west of the capital of Baghdad, sits along an IS supply line that links Iraqi territory controlled by the extremist group with its base in Syria. Officials in the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS believe that by clearing the town, they can build on recent territorial gains in the vast province.
That would move them closer to two major goals: isolating the IS-held city of Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, and linking up government forces in the west and the north in preparation for an eventual push on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city that also is held by the extremist group.
As Iraqi forces closed in on Hit, al-Asadi said he ordered the town's main bridge over the Euphrates River destroyed by a coalition airstrike to slow the flight of IS fighters. In the days that followed, dozens of boats IS used were also destroyed by coalition bombs, the Pentagon said.
In the initial stage of the operation last month, some IS militants sought to knit themselves further into the civilian fabric of the town. Fighters vanished from Hit's main streets, occupying abandoned houses or forcing their way into homes where civilians were still living, according to residents who evacuated.
"They began moving more and more into the narrow side streets and the civilian areas," one resident told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to protect the safety of relatives still trapped in Hit.
Al-Asadi said his men were increasingly finding fighters from the Islamic State group posing as civilian refugees.
"One of the ways we can tell is you can see they shaved their beards very quickly," al-Asadi said, smiling. "They have cuts from the razor on their faces."
Because tens of thousands of civilians were still inside Hit when the operation began, only about 20 coalition airstrikes per week were launched to clear territory, Iraqi commanders said.
By contrast, coalition jets conducted 20 airstrikes in a single day when Iraqi forces retook the northern town of Sinjar last year — and more than 60 in the week it fell. But Sinjar was smaller than Hit, and almost all civilians had left.
The trickle of civilians from Hit turned into a flood on Monday as a column of Humvees carrying elite Iraqi forces began rolling through agricultural neighborhoods and then into residential blocks. Thousands of civilians filled Hit's northern main road, the only route left open.
A half-dozen Humvees escorted the initial wave of evacuating civilians, with elderly people in wheelchairs loaded onto the back of the vehicles. Troops shouted for children to stay within the tire tracks of the big vehicles, and farm animals were prodded into that safe path as well.
A day earlier, dozens of bombs that had been sown by militants along the road had been cleared by the troops.
While civilians were being loaded into trucks to be taken to a camp, one of the bombs exploded with a plume of orange smoke along the path they had just traversed. Commanders said it had been triggered prematurely and no one was hurt.
All the while, helicopter gunships circled above, firing into the town.
The evacuation further slowed the military operation, with dozens of vehicles and troops having to be pulled back from the front to control the crowd of civilians.
"They come toward our forces. They know that if they flee toward Daesh, they will be shot," said Brig. Gen. Sami Khathan al-Aradi, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Al-Aradi admitted that the evacuation had brought military activity to a near halt at times, but he noted that "these are orders" from his fellow commanders.
"The streets are narrow. You can't move the civilians to the side because of all the roadside bombs," he said.
A 19-year-old named Athra, who asked that her last name not be used in order to protect relatives still in IS-held territory, said she understood why the Iraqi forces were moving slowly and deliberately around Hit and not allowing the militants to escape.
"They don't want them to just return after the fighting is over," said Athra, who originally was from Ramadi and left Hit with her family when clashes broke out in the streets around her home.
She explained that many Anbar residents believe the rise of IS in Anbar province was facilitated by the large number of al-Qaida sympathizers who moved back in or remained in towns and villages after U.S. forces withdrew in 2011 following the war.
"We don't want the same thing to happen again," she said.
Associated Press writer Khalid Mohammed in Hit contributed to this report.