June 4, 2016 / 4:34 PM / 4 years ago

Shi'ite militia says it will storm Iraq's Falluja when families leave

Shi'ite fighters and Iraqi security forces hold an Islamic State flag (L), which they pulled down after clashes with IS militants, in Saqlawiya, north of Falluja, Iraq, June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iranian-backed Sh’ite Iraqi militia said on Saturday it planned to storm Falluja, Islamic State’s stronghold near Baghdad, once civilians left the city, backtracking on earlier statements that it would leave this task to the Iraqi army.

“We will not enter Falluja as long as there are families inside,” said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, the largest component of the Shi’ite paramilitary coalition known as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization.

“Of course, we will go in and rid the city from the evil of this cancerous gland, with nobody preventing us,” he said, when asked what would happen if civilians managed to flee the Sunni city that lies 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad.

Falluja is the first Iraqi city that Islamic State captured, in January 2014, and the second largest still under its control after Mosul in the north. Sunni politicians have voiced concern that the presence of Shi’ite militias alongside the army in the battle to retake the city could lead to sectarian violence.

Amiri was speaking to reporters while touring one of the frontlines near Falluja. Last week he said the militias would take part in encirclement operations but leave the army to storm the city.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on June 1 the offensive to dislodge the ultra-hardline Sunni militants had slowed down in order to protect civilians. About 50,000 are trapped in the city, with limited access to water, food and healthcare, according to the United Nations.

Falluja is a historic bastion of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ite-led authorities who took over after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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