BAGHDAD (AP) — Families have begun returning to Fallujah three months after the Iraqi city was declared fully liberated from the Islamic State group, an Iraqi official said Saturday.
Forty families were cleared to return after they passed background checks and their neighborhoods were deemed safe, Suhaib al-Rawi, governor of the western Anbar province, said.
In total 236 families returned Saturday to Fallujah and surrounding suburbs, his added. Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, had a pre-conflict population of more than 300,000 people.
Fallujah was declared "fully liberated" in late June after a monthlong operation by Iraqi forces aided by U.S.-led airstrikes. Fallujah had been the first Iraqi city to fall to IS, in January 2014.
The nearby city of Ramadi was also retaken from IS earlier this year, but remains largely uninhabitable due to destruction caused by the fighting and explosives left behind by IS.
More than a hundred civilians were killed by explosives planted by IS in Ramadi as they initially tried to return. Iraqi authorities then began turning many people away for safety reasons.
"Today’s homecoming ended up being far less of a tidal wave of returnees than we had hoped," said Jeremy Courtney, the founder of an aid group active in Anbar called Preemptive Love.
"We had prepared welcome home food and supplies for 1,200 people," he added.
IS still controls the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest. Iraqi leaders hope to take it back this year, but those plans could be delayed by preparations for a parallel humanitarian operation. The U.N. says up to a million civilians could flee Mosul once the push to retake the city begins.