Iraqi forces battling their way into Fallujah repelled a four-hour attack by the Islamic State group in the city's south on Tuesday, a day after first moving into the southern edges of the militant-held city with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
Also Tuesday, a leading aid group raised alarm over the unfolding "human catastrophe" in Fallujah, where an estimated 50,000 people remain trapped as the fight intensifies and renewed calls on warring parties to open up safe corridors for civilians to flee.
The attack started at dawn in Fallujah's Nuaimiya area where Iraqi troops captured almost 85 percent of the ground the previous day, two officers with the special forces told The Associated Press.
ISIS militants used tunnels, deployed snipers and sent six explosives-laden cars to hit the troops but they were destroyed before reaching their targets, the officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing campaign.
Iraqi forces suffered casualties, but the officers didn't give details.
Nuaimiya is a sprawling mainly agricultural area in Fallujah's south and Monday's push into it was the first attempt by Iraqi forces to enter the city after focusing on dislodging the militants from surrounding areas to tighten the siege.
Fallujah has been under Islamic State control for over two years and is the last major city in western Iraq still under control of the Sunni extremist group. The militants still control patches of territory in the country's north and east as well as the country's second largest city, Mosul.
The U.S. led coalition and Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary forces are helping the Iraqi army in the battle to retake Fallujah. But the fight is expected to be long and protracted, given that ISIS militants have had more than two years to dig in.
Tunnels — similar to those found in other territory long held by ISIS — have already been discovered in the northeastern outskirts of Fallujah.
The Iraqi counterterrorism forces are leading the assault on Fallujah, slowly moving up from the southern edge. Their advance is expected to be slow also because tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Fallujah and hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, according to special forces' commanders at the scene.
A statement from Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned of the impeding humanitarian disaster inside Fallujah.
"A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah," Egeland said, adding that only one family managed to escape from the town on Monday. Since the offensive began a week ago, 554 other families have escaped from areas surrounding Fallujah, which lies 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.
"Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it's too late and more lives are lost," Egeland added.
The NRC group, which is working with refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq, said lack of food, medicine, safe drinking water and electricity in the city "are pushing families to the brink of desperation."
The extremist group is expected to increase attacks in major Iraqi cities in an attempt to distract the security forces' attention away from the front lines. On Monday, IS claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in and around the capital, Baghdad, that killed at least 24 people and wounded dozens.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that while the American military considered Mosul to be a higher priority target, urging Iraqi officials to make that the decisive battle, recent bombings throughout Baghdad (including car and suicide bombs) have pushed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government towards the retaking of Fallujah.
Iraqi forces scored one of their first significant victories against ISIS when they retook the nearby city of Ramadi earlier this year.
"They think that the logistics base for these car bombs goes back to Fallujah,” said Douglas Ollivant, an analyst with the New America Foundation who specialized in Iraq under both US presidents Obama and Bush.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.