The U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are battling to retake the city from the terror group. Iraqi security tried to enter the city at dawn, a senior member of its rank told CNN. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
ISIS fighters used suicide car bombs, RPGs and snipers to beat back the Iraqi forces, the official said. The Iraqi side suffered losses, the official added, declining to say how many.
The most intense fighting took place in Nuaimiya, a farming area considered to be one of the last strips of land that separated Iraqi forces from ISIS south of Falluja.
ISIS claimed that its fighters stopped Iraqi security forces and prevented them from advancing toward southern Falluja. The group said it killed at least 25 Iraqi troops and destroyed six army vehicles. CNN cannot confirm that.
In a video released by Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, Iraqi Gen. Hamid al-Maliki announced Monday the city was encircled by Iraqi troops.
Iraqi forces, in conjunction with Iraqi and coalition air support, started the operation to retake the city Monday, an Iraqi military spokesman said, capturing some villages on the outskirts of Falluja.
The next step in the military’s plan was to push into the heart of the city and drive ISIS out, which may be the most dangerous part of the operation.
Meanwhile, the danger for innocent people caught in the middle intensifies. There are reports that hundreds of families are being used by ISIS as human shields in the center of Falluja, said Caroline Gluk, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Baghdad.
The agency has also received reports of civilian casualties, deaths caused by heavy shelling, she said.
About 3,700 people — or more than 600 families — have fled Falluja over the past week, since the offensive to retake the city from ISIS began, according to the UNHCR.
Tens of thousands of people are at risk once door-to-door combat begins in the city, and there are reports of ISIS executing men and boys who refuse to fight for them, according to the United Nations.
Maliki says aerial forces have provided cover for ground operations, helping to take out ISIS fighters and destroy their equipment.
“With every moment that passes, their need for safe exits becomes more critical,” said Nasr Muflahi, the Norwegian Refugee Council country director in Iraq. “Getting there in the first place is near impossible for those in the city center.”
And if the city is liberated, Iraqi authorities will face a whole new set of challenges — among them, addressing the social and political problems that led to the rise of ISIS, as well as security issues.
The newest phase of the operation to retake Falluja was announced early Monday morning.
“With God’s blessing we have launched the third phase of the operation to storm the center of Falluja city — by our heroes in the counterterrorism forces, units of the Iraqi army and Anbar police,” Iraqi military spokesman Yahya Rasoul said on Iraqi state TV.
Falluja and Mosul are the last two Iraqi cities under ISIS’ control. Iraqi forces retook the village of Nuaimiya, just south of Falluja, closing in on the city itself, al-Iraqi TV reported.
Earlier Monday, Iraqi military units and supporting militia captured a handful of settlements from ISIS near Falluja, including the town of Saqlawiya, about 10 kilometers (6.5 miles) northwest of the city, and the villages of al-Buaziz, al-Bu Efan and al-Shiha, north and west of Falluja, state-run TV reported.
Iraqi government troops, backed by Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units and an air campaign by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, launched the offensive last week to retake the ISIS stronghold, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, first targeting outlying settlements. (Courtesy CNN)