ISIS holding Fallujah population hostage, Iraqi minister says

Islamic State is putting up a tough fight in Fallujah and its recapture by the Iraqi army could take time, said Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

Tunnels, IEDs and danger to civilians contribute to stalled assault on militant stronghold

Families displaced from Fallujah by fighting between Iraqi security forces and ISIS take shelter outside the city on Thursday. Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari says ISIS is holding those still in the city as 'hostages.' (Associated Press)

Islamic State is putting up a tough fight in Fallujah and its recapture by the Iraqi army could take time, said Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

Fallujah, located 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shia-led Baghdad government.

ISIS fighters raised their flag there in January 2014 before sweeping through much of Iraq's north and west, declaring a caliphate several months later, from Mosul.

"Fallujah is a tough nut to crack," he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday evening. "Daesh are holding the population as hostages, not allowing them to escape, and they are putting up a tough fight there," he added, referring to the militant group by one of its Arabic acronyms.

"Nobody can give you a definitive time when Fallujah will be cleared of Daesh. Mainly because of the resistance, because of the IEDs [improvised explosive devices], because of the tunnels" the militants have dug to move without being detected, he added.

The army started the offensive on May 23, with the backing of Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and air support from the U.S.-led coalition. 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Wednesday the army had slowed the pace of its offensive because of fears for the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city with limited access to water, food and healthcare.

"The security forces, the PMF have made significant progress but really to storm the center of Fallujah I think will take time," Zebari said. "We should not declare victory prematurely."

Iraq's Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari speaks during a news conference in January. Zebari says it is difficult to predict when Iraqi forces might retake Fallujah. (Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters)

Harder than Tikrit, Ramadi 

A spokesman for one of the main Shia paramilitary groups taking part in the offensive on Fallujah said the operations have come to a near standstill in the past three days and asked Abadi to order the attacks to continue.

"We demand that Prime Minister Abadi continues the operation to free Fallujah and not to submit to American and Western pressure to halt the operation," said Jawad al-Talabawi, a spokesman of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

"We say … freeing Fallujah is needed to protect Baghdad."

Abadi ordered the offensive on Fallujah after a series of bombings claimed by Islamic State hit Shia districts of  Baghdad, causing the worst death toll this year.

Shia fighters hold a captured Islamic State flag as they celebrate victory in the town of Garma, west of Fallujah, on May 26. Shia militias have urged Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi to maintain the assault on the ISIS-held city. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Fallujah would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after former dictator Saddam Hussein's home town Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast western Anbar province. Abadi has expressed hope that 2016 will be the year of "final victory" over Islamic State, with the capture of Mosul, their de facto capital in northern Iraq.

Baghdad-based political analysts said the battle for Fallujah could be harder than Tikrit and Ramadi because of the symbolism of the city for the militants and because they cannot retreat to other places, as the whole area is under siege by the army and Shia militias.

"In Fallujah, Daesh has die-hard fighters defending a city they consider as a symbol for Jihad," said analyst and former army general Jasim al-Bahadili.

Political analyst Ali Hashim said that even if the government managed to retake Fallujah, it would continue to face the problem of winning over the Sunni population, some of whom feel marginalized by the Shia-led government.