Iraqi PM announces recapture of Islamic State’s last urban stronghold
The town of Hawija is among the final holdouts from the territory seized by the jihadists in 2014
Iraqi forces have retaken the town of Hawija from the Islamic State, the last significant urban territory the group controlled.
“I announce the liberation of the city of Hawija,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in Paris on Thursday after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Only the outskirts remain to be recaptured.”
Hawija, some 225 kilometres north of Baghdad, was a strategic position for the extremist group, giving it a base in central Iraq to launch attacks in surrounding provinces.
The battle to reclaim the town was launched on September 21 and involved a mix of Iraqi forces backed by American airstrikes.
The battle for Hawija had been one of the few remaining areas that Iraqi and Kurdish parties had been cooperating. It is located within Kirkuk province, an oil-rich region that is claimed by both Iraqis and Kurds and has been at the centre of a political conflict between the two groups.
Last week, the Kurdish Regional Government held a unilateral referendum on independence which was approved by nearly 93 per cent of voters in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The vote was opposed by the Iraqi central government, the United States, Turkey and Iran. It has set off a string of recriminations and threats of total economic blockade of the Kurdish region by Iraq, Turkey and Iran - all of whom have held military exercises as a warning to Kurdish officials.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish media Thursday that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would decide together whether to choke off the flow of oil from the Kurdish region.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of Iraqi government aligned militias, have strongly opposed the Kurdish independence referendum as well. They participated in the Hawija battle, putting them in close proximity to Kurdish peshmerga forces and raising fears of clashes between the groups.
The relatively swift fight in Hawija has mimicked August’s battle for the northern city of Tal Afar, where the militants put up a mild resistance before surrendering or withdrawing, Iraq’s military said.
Both fights mark a dramatic turnaround in the Islamic State’s ability to hold ground and inflict significant damage. Iraqi and American officials involved in the campaign to eradicate the group say Islamic State was exhausted and severely depleted during the gruelling nine-month battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the biggest territory the militants held after their 2014 sweep of northern and central Iraq.
Coupled with ongoing battles to evict the group from the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, Islamic State is under immense military pressure and has ceded some 90 per cent of the territory it once controlled.
In Iraq, the group now only controls a string of small towns in the vast desert of western Anbar along the Syrian border.
Iraqi forces launched a campaign there last month and expect a tough fight in a place that is difficult to contain and where the militants can move easily between the two countries.
It is that porous frontier region that US and Iraqi officials believe the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is hiding.
Last week, Islamic State released an audio recording purporting to be of Baghdadi - defying Russian claims that the reclusive leader had been killed over the summer.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse