BAGHDAD — Iraq's military said on Sunday it was preparing to launch an offensive to retake the ISISstronghold of Falluja and told residents to get ready to leave before fighting started.
Families who could not flee should raise white flags to mark their location in the city 30 miles west of Baghdad, the army's media unit said in a statement on state television.
Fallujah, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadis, was the first city to fall to ISIS in January 2014, six months before the group swept through large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shiite militias, backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, have surrounded Fallujah since late last year. The jihadis have prevented residents from leaving for months.
The army "is asking citizens that are still in Fallujah to be prepared to leave the city through secured routes that will be announced later," the statement said, without saying when any offensive might start.
Deputy district council chairman Fail al-Essawi said three corridors would be opened for civilians to camps west, southwest and southeast of the city.
A senior security official with the coalition told NBC News on Sunday that some 20,000 additional soldiers from the ranks of the federal police had arrived at the city, boosting the number of troops involved in the liberation effort to 35,000. The official said that some families had been able to leave.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch said last month residents of Fallujah were facing acute shortages of food and medicine amid a siege by government forces. Aid has not reached the city since the Iraqi military recaptured nearby Ramada in December.
Essawi told a local television channel that more than 75,000 civilians remained in Fallujah, in keeping with a recent U.S. military estimate of 60,000 to 90,000. Around 300,000 people lived in the city on the Euphrates river before the war.
Known as the "City of Minarets and Mother of Mosques", Fallujah is a focus for Sunni Muslim faith and identity in Iraq. It was badly damaged in two offensives by U.S. forces against al Qaeda insurgents in 2004.
Besides Fallujah, ISIS still controls vast swathes of territory and major cities like Mosul in the north, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year.