Iraqi security forces say they have taken control of the city of Fallujah from Islamic State militants after nearly five weeks of intense fighting.
The militant group has controlled the city for the past 2 ½ years, as NPR's Alice Fordham tells our Newscast unit. Iraqi officials pronounced the fight over after pushing ISIS fighters out of Fallujah's Jolan district.
The commander of the operation, Lt. Gen. Abdel Wahab al-Saadi, appeared on state television and "hailed what he called the victory of the security forces and their allies, although he said clearing operations were still ongoing," as Alice reports.
Al-Saadi said at least 1,800 Islamic State militants were killed during the recent fighting and others fled the city, according to Reuters.
This comes a week after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Fallujah, after the U.S.-backed forces took control of Fallujah's main government building. As The Associated Press reports, al-Abadi "pledged that remaining pockets of IS fighters would be cleared out within hours, but fierce clashes on the city's northern and western edges persisted for days."
The strategic city is located about 35 miles from Baghdad, and as we reported, ISIS has used the city as a jumping off point for recent attacks in Iraq's capital.
As of Tuesday, at least 85,000 people had fled Fallujah and the surrounding area during the weeks of fighting, the United Nations refugee agency said. It adds: "About 60,000 of these fled over a period of just three days last week, between 15 to 18 June." The flood of displaced persons has overwhelmed nearby camps, it says.
"Two and sometimes three families are having to share tents in many cases while others sleep in the open, without hygiene facilities," UNCHR said. "Rising temperatures, the absence of shade and insufficient clean drinking water are compounding an already desperate situation."
Early this week, Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council told Morning Edition that conditions at these camps are "getting worse every day." Schembri describes what he has heard from those who fled:
"Well, especially in the last year and in the few - last few months it has been, really, a nightmare to live in Fallujah. None of the basic supplies were actually making it through. People were living off - on animal feed, on expired dates and drinking the river water, which is undrinkable. I've met people who have lost their relatives drowning in the Euphrates River when they tried to escape from the sniper fire. They tried to flee from Fallujah.
"The level of trauma that is coming from there is something we haven't even started talking about. Right now, we're just struggling to deal with the basic necessities - water, food, medicines, tents, mattresses. That's the kind of place we're in right now."
After security forces declared victory, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi said 90 percent of the city is safe and habitable in a post on Twitter.
But as Alice reports, "the Norwegian Refugee Council says it is too soon to say whether the city is safe for people to go back to their homes."
And after years under ISIS rule, Fallujah's mayor Esa al-Esawi tells Reuters that "the city doesn't require just rebuilding its infrastructure but also serious rehabilitation of its society."
Government and international assistance is needed to provide that support, al-Esawi adds. "Daesh (another name for Islamic State) worked to brainwash people and we need serious programs by the international community to help people get rid of Daesh's deviant ideologies and restore their normal life."
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