NAYMIYAH, Iraq (AP) — A column of black Humvees carrying Iraqi special forces rolled into southern Fallujah on Wednesday, the first time in more than two years that government troops have entered the western city held by the Islamic State group.
The counterterrorism troops fought house-to-house battles with the militants in the Shuhada neighborhood, and the operation to retake the city is expected to be one of the most difficult yet.
"Daesh are concentrating all their forces in this direction," said Gen. Haider Fadel, one of the commanders of the counterterrorism forces, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State militants.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised a swift victory when he announced the start of the operation on May 22 to liberate Fallujah, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad. But the complexity of the task quickly became apparent.
Although other security forces from the federal and provincial police, government-sanctioned Shiite militias and the Iraqi military have surrounded the city, only the elite counterterrorism troops are fighting inside Fallujah at this stage of the operation. And they are doing so under the close cover of U.S.-led coalition airpower.
"We expect to face more resistance, especially because we are the only forces entering the city," Fadel said.
The Islamic State group has suffered setbacks on several fronts in the region where it captured large swaths of territory two years ago. In northern Syria, U.S.-backed rebels made a final push Wednesday in the town of Manbij — a key waypoint on the IS supply line to the Turkish border and its self-styled capital of Raqqa. And in Libya, forces loyal to a U.N.-brokered government have advanced deep inside the coastal city of Sirte, the main stronghold of the IS group's local affiliate.
Fallujah is one of the last IS strongholds in Iraq. Government forces have slowly won back territory, although IS still controls parts of the north and west, as well as the second-largest city of Mosul.
The sky above Fallujah's Shuhada neighborhood on Wednesday filled with fine dust and thick gray smoke obscuring minarets and communication towers as artillery rounds and volleys of airstrikes cleared the way for Iraqi ground forces.
At a makeshift command center, Iraqi forces coordinated the operation via hand-held radios, with Australian coalition troops stationed at a nearby base. One of the Australians listed the casualties among the militants.
"Two KIA (killed in action), one wounded with a missing arm — his right arm," the unidentified Australian radioed after calling in an airstrike on Islamic State fighters.
A frontier city on the easternmost edge of Anbar province, Fallujah has long been a bastion of support among its mostly Sunni population for anti-government militants following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
It is symbolically important to both sides: Many of the Iraqi forces fought al-Qaida in Iraq — the predecessor to IS — in this same territory, and the city was the scene of some of the bloodiest urban combat with U.S. forces in 2004.
Its high value is one of the reasons IS has deployed well-trained snipers and built extensive networks of tunnels to defend it.
"We are having to fight two battles — one above the ground and one below," said Iraqi Maj. Ali Hamel of the military's intelligence wing.
While Fallujah's sparsely populated northern outskirts were recaptured quickly by Iraqi forces, IS used the initial days of the operation to pull the majority of its fighters into the city center, taking about 50,000 civilians with them for use as human shields.
Once Iraq's special forces began trying to punch inside the city limits, the pace of operations slowed.
In past battles with IS in places like Ramadi, Fadel said, one of the signs that the militants were losing their grip on territory was when civilians begin fleeing the city center.
"So far, we haven't seen that" in Fallujah, he said. "Once we do, it will only be a matter of time."
The Islamic State militants "had chosen their battle space," a counterterrorism officer said, explaining how the group set up many defensive positions in the southern outskirts to try to bog down the Iraqi forces before they even had a chance to enter.
That southern neighborhood of Naymiyah, which was secured by Iraqi forces on Sunday, bears the scars of a protracted fight, a now-common sight in Iraqi territory that has been won back from IS.
Walls stood shredded by artillery fire, with almost every home either partially collapsed or pancaked. Craters from airstrikes left many main roads unusable. Convoys of armored Humvees were forced to use the neighborhood's unpaved side streets instead, churning up the soft sand beneath their treads.
"We're expecting another big fight like this one before Fallujah falls," the officer said, explaining that he anticipated Iraqi forces would encounter another heavily fortified neighborhood. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
On Wednesday evening, the prime minister visited the recently retaken territory.
Al-Abadi was joined by Lt. Gen. Abdel Wahab al-Saadi, the counterterrorism commander of the Fallujah operation.
It was al-Abadi's fourth trip to the area since the operation began. Despite territorial victories against IS, the Iraqi leader continues to grapple with a deepening political crisis and growing social unrest in Baghdad.