(CNSNews.com) - An estimated 50,000 civilians remain in Fallujah, as Iraqi troops begin their push to liberate that city, a U.S. military spokesman told reporters on Friday.
"We have dropped leaflets to inform the population to avoid ISIL areas," Col. Steve Warren said. "Those leaflets directed those who cannot leave to put white sheets on their roofs to mark their locations. The Iraqi Army is working hard to establish evacuation routes. And the local Anbar government has set up camps for displaced civilians."
Warren said the U.S. military has seen "some white sheets" and some people waving on rooftops. Some civilians have managed to get out of the ISIS-controlled city, but most cannot leave:
"This is an enemy that doesn't want the civilian population to leave. Why?" Because they want to hide behind the civilian population. They know it makes it harder for us.
"So this is -- it's going to be -- it's going to be a hard challenge to find a way to liberate this city and still keep the civilian population as safe as possible. And the Iraqis understand that they have a challenge on their hands. And we're working closely with them. The international community is here working closely with them -- the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations.
"Everyone here is working together to try and solve this problem of liberating Fallujah, while at the same time protecting the very civilians that we're trying to liberate.
"So it's a -- it's a hard problem," Warren said. "There are no easy solutions to it, but we're going to keep trying. We're going to continue to advise the Iraqis on what's best to do. And we're going to get the city liberated.
A reporter asked Warren, "Is there any reason to believe that ISIS will not simply just put white sheets on some of their facilities to avoid being struck?"
"They most likely will," Warren replied, "and this is part of the complexity of urban warfare."
Warren said it's unclear how long the battle in Fallujah will last.
He also noted that "every city in Iraq's got to get cleared" of Islamic State fighters. "I mean, that's what we're here for. We're here to clear Daesh, clear ISIL out of Iraq. So we're going to every city sooner or later, it's just a question of sequencing."
According to Warren, the city of Mosul "is our ultimate objective in Iraq," but given the recent rash of bombings in Baghdad, Iraqi leaders decided now was the time to liberate Fallujah.
"We understand that completely and we accept it, and we're providing devastating airpower in support of the decision that the prime minister of Iraq made to liberate Fallujah."
Warren said the Iraqi troops involved in Fallujah are different from those that will be used in Mosul. "So the Mosul forces are continuing their preparations, continuing the force-generation process, while the Fallujah, while the Anbar forces conduct operations in Anbar."
"Now, certainly (the effort to liberate Fallujah) is going to bleed-off some leadership attention. That's to be expected. But, you know, if this operation goes rapidly, we'll see Fallujah liberated which will then really have great benefit, I think, because that will take some of the pressure off the political leadership in Baghdad.
"It will cause the Iraqi population to rest a little easier, particularly the Baghdad population, which of course is the center of gravity for Iraq."