Baghdad: Iraq’s army said on Sunday it was preparing to retake the Daesh stronghold of Fallujah and asked residents to get ready to leave, state TV reported.
Families who could not leave should raise white flags to mark their location in the city, the army’s media unit added, according to the TV channel.
Fallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to Daesh in January 2014, six months before the group that emerged from Al Qaida swept through large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The army “is asking the citizens that are still in Fallujah to be prepared to leave the city through secured routes that will be announced later”, the channel said.
The city on the Euphrates river 50km west of the capital, had a pre-war population of around 300,000.
It is encircled by Iraqi forces and a coalition of Shiite militias known as Hashid Shaabi.
Known as the “City of Minarets and Mother of Mosques”, Fallujah is a focus for Sunni faith and identity in Iraq.
It was badly damaged in two offensives by US forces against Al Qaida insurgents in 2004.
Last week, Iraqi military forces recaptured the desert town of Rutba from Daesh after a two-day battle during which commanders said they countered limited resistance.
It’s one of a series of victories for government forces in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and some Iraqi military and militia leaders say plans are in place to build on the momentum and attack Fallujah next.
A drawn-out offensive for Fallujah, the first city in the country to fall to Daesh and the site of one of the bloodiest battles for US Marines during the Iraq War, could delay an already stuttering build-up to retake the northern city of Mosul.
Some analysts have said that Daesh’s lack of resistance in Rutba may be because it is hunkering down to protect its key Iraq strongholds in Mosul and Fallujah.
The militants have also waged a bombing campaign in Baghdad that US and Iraqi military officials say is designed to delay efforts to retake those cities.
But the Baghdad bombing campaign has also added weight to those in Iraq who have been pushing for a Fallujah operation before any campaign for Mosul.
— With inputs from Washington Post