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ISIS fighters who'd occupied the outskirts of Fallujah have melted away ahead of an Iraqi government offensive to retake the city, according to a villager who recently fled the area.
Farmer Alaa Abdulrahman told NBC News that the 40-odd ISIS militants "all disappeared suddenly" from Albu Jassem village in northern Fallujah province.
"They cannot go back to Fallujah proper because the city is surrounded by Iraqi forces from all directions,” the father-of-five added in a telephone interview.
Abdulrahman, 45, described the perilous nighttime journey his family was forced to take after Iraqi officials ordered residents to evacuate on Sunday.
“While we were walking out of our village, we were not sure that we would do it, because we know ISIS militants planted many IEDs in the roads,” he said. He and his family are now in a refugee camp some 20 miles south of Fallujah.
The operation to retake Fallujah, some 45 miles west of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, has been supported by U.S. airstrikes.
The majority Sunni capital was Iraq’s first city to fall to ISIS in January 2014. Retaking it promises to be a major challenge for the country's beleaguered security forces.
“It is not going to be an easy fighting at all,” according to Isa al-Isawi, the chairman of Fallujah's local council who has been living in a refugee camp with other residents since ISIS took the city. "We heard from people who escaped from the city how ISIS militants are prepared for this battle. Peaceful locals are the only victims of this fighting.”
“I’m afraid ISIS is going to use [Fallujah residents] as human shields to prevent the Iraqi forces from retaking the city,” he added.
Some 100 families, or around 600 people, have managed to leave the city, according to al-Isawi. Many Iraqis are suspicious of civilians who have only recently fled the area assuming they are ISIS sympathizers.
Fallujah was a center of the insurgency led by the ISIS's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. More than 100 U.S. troops died and another 1,000 were wounded fighting insurgents in house-to-house battles in 2004.
Government officials recently estimated 10,000 families were in the city, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday. The UNHCR warned aid has not reached city since nearby Ramadi was captured in December, cutting off supply routes and preventing civilians from leaving.
The Fallujah assault is the first major urban offensive since Iraqi forces ran ISIS out of Ramadi. In spite of being declared a victory, Ramadi is largely uninhabitable thanks to ISIS explosives and a campaign of airstrikes that destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.