The Iraqi army on Monday launched a three-pronged attack on Fallujah, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital, Baghdad, military commanders said, after a week-long operation focused on retaking villages and rural areas around the city.
"Iraqi forces entered Fallujah under air cover from the international coalition, the Iraqi air force and army aviation and supported by artillery and tanks," said Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander in charge of the operation.
"Counter-terrorism service (CTS) forces, the Anbar police and the Iraqi army, at around 4 a.m. (0100 UTC/GMT), started moving into Fallujah from three directions," he said, adding that they had encountered resistance from self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) militants, who seized the city in January 2014.
An estimated 50,000 civilians are thought to be trapped in Fallujah, arousing fears that they could be used as human shields by the militants. A few hundred families have managed to escape from the area ahead of the assault.
Fallujah, which is one of two major urban centers in Iraq still held by the militants, was also the scene of fierce fighting in 2004, when US forces succeeded in retaking the city from insurgents in November after an initial failure several months previously.
That battle for the city became notorious for alleged human rights abuses by US personnel, and for their use of the controversial incendiary weapon, white phosphorus.
IS also holds Iraq's second city of Mosul, which was also taken in 2014 during the initial IS advance that captured considerable territory within Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish peshmerga forces are fighting to reclaim areas around the city ahead of a planned attack to retake it.
Attacks in Baghdad
The Iraqi capital also saw bloody violence on Monday, with police saying that more than 20 people were killed and some 50 injured in three bombings, including two suicide attacks.
They said a car bomb in the northern Shiite district of Shaab killed 12 and injured more than 20.
In Tarmiya, a mostly Sunni district also in Baghdad's north, a suicide car bomber reportedly killed eight and wounded 21 after detonating an explosives-laden vehicle near a government building and a police station.
In the other suicide attack, a bomber on a motorcycle armed with an explosive belt killed three and injured nine in the Shiite district Sadr City.
According to The Associated Press, all three attacks were claimed by IS in an online statement on a militant website commonly used by extremists. The claims have not been verified, however.
tj/msh (AFP, Reuters)