WASHINGTON - For almost a week, thousands of Iraqi forces have been advancing on the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah, methodically moving to cut off as many as 1,000 IS fighters from help on the outside.
By Friday, backed by coalition airstrikes and artillery fire, Iraqi forces had cleared the town of Karma, about 16 kilometers northeast of the city.
But while admitting Fallujah is “largely isolated,” U.S. officials are trying to downplay expectations of a quick or decisive victory over IS.
“ISIL has entrenched itself in the city,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, using an acronym for the terror group.
“Fallujah has been one of ISIL’s important footholds in Iraq,” the official added, calling it “the most forward position ISIL holds” and a threat to Baghdad.
No retreat - yet
And while IS fighters did retreat in the face of coalition-backed forces in Hit and in Rutbah, military officials say there have been few signs that IS leadership is willing to let fighters to flee and cede more ground.
“We haven’t seen much of that yet,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Steve Warren said during a video briefing from Baghdad Friday.
“It’s still early,” he added. “The friendly forces are still a ways outside the city.”
U.S. officials also point out IS has gone to great lengths to brutally discourage its fighters from retreating.
In one example, Col. Warren cited Iraqi media reports claiming IS executed fighters who fled from Rutbah by putting them in bakery ovens and cooking them to death.
Warren also noted that although slower and more difficult, IS could find ways to reinforce Fallujah.
“It’s rare, almost impossible, to completely seal off a city,” he said. “It’s always possible for individuals to move in or out.”
And despite their weakened state, IS forces have also found ways to take coalition-backed forces by surprise, something Western officials say the terror group could do again.
In the most recent example, earlier this month, IS managed to mass dozens of IS fighters, truck bombs, a bulldozer and artillery undetected and punch through Kurdish Peshmerga lines in northern Iraq.
IS forces were ultimately repelled, losing as many as 80 fighters in the process, but not before briefly taking the towns of Telskuf and Musqelat, killing a U.S. Navy SEAL in the process.