Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday announced the start of a military operation to retake the city of Fallujah, held by the Islamic State group for more than two years.
"We are beginning the operation to liberate Fallujah," Abadi said in one of a series of posts on social media.
Fallujah is located 50 kilometers to the west of the capital, Baghdad. But the announcement seemed to clarify that Iraqi forces are advancing first toward Fallujah, rather than Mosul, Iraq's second city, which Islamic State militants also control.
The U.S. military, which has hundreds of advisers and trainers in Iraq to assist Iraqi forces, preferred that Baghdad first pursue an advance on Mosul, in the northern part of Iraq. But powerful Iraqi militias have deployed to the Fallujah area in preparation for an attack.
PM Al-Abadi announces the launch of operations to liberate Fallujah pic.twitter.com/Mf0KN7MMoq— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) May 22, 2016
A spokesman for Badr, one of the Shi'ite militia forces, said the Fallujah operation would start soon.
Iraq's Joint Operations Command warned civilians in Fallujah – possibly tens of thousands of people – to flee the city.
"I am calling for citizens who are inside Fallujah to leave their areas and head towards safe corridors," Iraqi Joint Operations Command Yahya Rasoul said on Iraqi TV. "In the coming few days, the operations to liberate Fallujah will be launched."
Dozens of families have fled, but Iraqi officials said Islamic State has sought to prevent them from leaving.
Human Rights Watch warned last month that the remaining Fallujah residents face food shortages and exorbitant prices.