By Ali Choukeir
Baghdad (AFP) Sept 21, 2017
Iraq brought all of its territory still held by the Islamic State group under attack Thursday, throwing the jihadists on the defensive across their self-proclaimed "caliphate" extending into neighbouring Syria.
Security forces backed by paramilitary units launched a dawn assault on a besieged IS-held pocket around the northern town of Hawija, just days after attacking the jihadists' only other foothold in the country.
The territory still held by IS has been dwindling fast since its defeat in Iraq's second city Mosul in July, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border with Syria.
Most of its onetime Syria bastion Raqa, long a byword for its most gruesome atrocities, is now in the hands of US-backed fighters, while elsewhere in Syria IS has suffered major losses to Russian-backed government forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi predicted that the assault on the Hawija region would swiftly bring a new victory against the crumbling jihadists.
The mainly Sunni Arab enclave, which was bypassed by government forces in their advance north to Mosul last year, has been a bastion of insurgency ever since the first year of the US-led occupation in 2003.
After the defeat of IS in Mosul and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighbouring towns form the last enclave still held by IS in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.
- 'Victory after victory' -
"At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Daesh's terrorist groups," Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
"Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God," he said.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the IS-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been massing in recent days.
The US-led coalition fighting IS hailed the new offensive by the Iraqi security forces (ISF) against the jihadist group, also known as ISIS.
"#ISF launch Hawija operations to #defeatDaesh. #ISIS now faces the mighty #ISF the last two areas where they hold any territory in #Iraq," a spokesman tweeted.
Hawija earned the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" from coalition troops from the early months after the invasion of 2003 for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's bastion in Afghanistan.
Located west of the ethnically divided Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, Hawija also lies on a fault line of Arab-Kurdish tensions.
Despite forming part of Kirkuk province, the area is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and bitterly opposed to Kurdish ambitions to incorporate Kirkuk in their autonomous region in the north.
Preparations for the offensive in Hawija have been overshadowed by an independence referendum that Kurdish leaders plan to hold on Monday in areas including Kirkuk against the wishes of the federal government in Baghdad.
It is the latest in a string of setbacks for IS in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
After seizing swathes of the two countries in 2014, IS has seen the territory under its control fast diminish in recent months.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched an attack up the Euphrates Valley against the other one of IS's two remaining enclaves in Iraq.
And in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor, IS faces twin assaults -- one by Russian-backed government troops and the other by US-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Further up the Euphrates, the SDF now controls 90 percent of the city of Raqa, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said on Wednesday.
The US-led coalition supporting the SDF estimated that 65-70 percent of Raqa is now under the control of the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
The jihadists seized Raqa in early 2014, making it their de facto Syria capital. They are thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.
IS also holds pockets of territory elsewhere in Syria, notably in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, but it is the target of attack by Russian-backed government forces there too.
Major battlefronts against IS in Iraq and Syria
Now it is under attack in both of its remaining enclaves in Iraq and is facing parallel Russian- and US-backed offensives in Syria. Here are the main battlefronts:
- IRAQ -
HAWIJA: Security forces and paramilitary units launched a major offensive on Thursday on IS-held territory around the town of Hawija, one of just two remaining jihadist pockets in Iraq.
The enclave, which was bypassed by government forces in their drive north to second city Mosul last year, lies to the west of the ethnically divided Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and includes several other mainly Sunni Arab towns.
Preparations for the operation had been overshadowed by a bitter dispute between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdish leaders over their plans to hold an independence referendum on Monday in areas including Kirkuk.
Hawija has been a bastion of insurgency since the early months after the US-led invasion of 2003 and earned the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" from coalition troops for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's bastion in Afghanistan.
EUPHRATES VALLEY: IS controls one other pocket of territory in Iraq, a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the Syrian border, including the towns of Al-Qaim, Rawa and Anna.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces backed by paramilitary units and coalition warplanes launched a push up the valley, attacking Anna and recapturing several villages.
After retaking Anna, Iraqi forces are expected to target Rawa and finally Al-Qaim, which is close to the Syrian border and IS-held territory beyond.
- SYRIA -
RAQA: Raqa was once the de facto Syrian capital of IS's self-declared caliphate.
But the group has now lost 90 percent of the city to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said Wednesday.
The US coalition supporting the SDF estimated that 65-70 percent of Raqa is now under the control of the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
The SDF worked for months to encircle the city, which had become a byword for the worst of IS's atrocities during its years under jihadist rule.
In June, the SDF broke into the city for the first time. The battle initially moved quickly, but slowed when the SDF reached the more densely populated city centre.
Its advance has been assisted by heavy US-led air strikes that have reportedly killed hundreds of civilians.
Estimates of the number of civilians still in the city range from fewer than 10,000 to as many as 25,000.
DEIR EZZOR: IS's other main stronghold in Syria is the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders IS-held territory in Iraq.
Two separate offensives are under way against the jihadists in the area -- one by the US-backed SDF, the other by government forces supported by Russia.
Regime troops advanced across the desert from the west to relieve two besieged garrisons in the city of Deir Ezzor, down the Euphrates Valley from Raqa.
The army now controls around 70 percent of the city and is battling to oust IS from the remainder, according to the Observatory.
The SDF advanced from the north to attack IS on the east bank of the Euphrates, capturing more than 500 square kilometres (190 square miles) of territory, according to the US-led coalition.
On Monday, government forces crossed to the east bank of the river, where commanders said they came under fire from the SDF.
Moscow said the US-backed force was impeding the battle against IS, a charge dismissed by Washington.
OTHER POCKETS: IS also holds pockets of territory elsewhere, notably in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, where it is the target of another Russian-backed offensive by government forces.
The jihadists are present in smaller numbers in the Yarmuk camp in south Damascus and a group allied with IS has a scattered presence in southern parts of Syria.
Al-Sagra, Iraq (AFP) Sept 19, 2017
Iraqi security forces and paramilitary units on Tuesday seized a village in one of the last pockets of territory controlled by the Islamic State group in the vast western province of Anbar, bordering Syria. "Our forces have taken the whole of Al-Rayhanna village, attacking from three directions, and have killed seven terrorists," an Iraqi colonel told AFP. Some IS fighters had fled towar ... read more
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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