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Baghdad — As Iraqi forces gathered for a major new offensive to try to take back the sprawling Sunni heartland of Anbar province, Islamic State militants struck first, unleashing a wave of suicide bombings that killed at least 17 soldiers.

The attacks outside the extremist-held city of Fallujah came just hours after the Iraqi government announced the start of a wide-scale operation to recapture areas under Islamic State control in the vast desert province that stretches to the border with Jordan.

The militants used a sandstorm that engulfed most of Iraq to launch the deadly wave of bombings late Tuesday night, said Brig. Gen Saad Maan Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command.

He said it was not clear how many suicide attackers were involved in the bombings but they struck from multiple directions at the Iraqi troops, who were gathered near a water control station and a lock system on a canal between the Euphrates River and Lake Tharthar as they prepared to deploy.

Last month, the water station near Fallujah fell into the hands of the militants following attacks that also included multiple suicide bombings that killed a general commanding the 1st Division and a dozen other officers and soldiers, Ibrahim said.

Iraqi government forces retook the station a few days later. Fallujah lies to the east of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, which was captured 10 days ago by the Islamic State militants in a major defeat for Iraqi troops.

The military, humiliated last year when it crumbled in the face of the militant onslaught in the city of Mosul, had regained some momentum after its victory in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit last month. The campaign to retake Anbar is deemed critical in regaining momentum against the Islamic State group.

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