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Iraq Claims Victory in ISIS’ Last Urban Stronghold


- 06Iraq3 facebookJumbo 768x402 - Iraq Claims Victory in ISIS’ Last Urban Stronghold


BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government said on Thursday that its forces had driven Islamic State fighters from the northern city of Hawija, the militants’ final urban stronghold in Iraq, three years after they seized control of nearly a third of the country.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a televised appearance in Paris, where he is on a state visit, that Hawija had been “liberated,” calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world.”

The fall of Hawija was confirmed in a statement on Thursday by the United States-led coalition. “Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign,” said Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II. “Thanks to their efforts, Hawijah will return to local governance and security.”

Although fighting is continuing in surrounding districts, the fall of the Hawija area would add to a series of crushing blows for the militants in Iraq, who would be left in control of only a string of desert outposts in the Euphrates River valley and the city of Qaim, on the border with Syria.

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Morale among militants in and around Hawija appears to be deteriorating rapidly. At least 600 men identified by Kurdish forces as Islamic State fighters have surrendered to the Kurds in Kirkuk, about 35 miles from Hawija. An additional 400 are being interrogated on suspicion of being militants. Together, they represent roughly a third of an estimated 3,000 Islamic State fighters in the Hawija area before Iraq began military operations there on Sept. 21.

Continue reading the main story

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government said on Thursday that its forces had driven Islamic State fighters from the northern city of Hawija, the militants’ final urban stronghold in Iraq, three years after they seized control of nearly a third of the country.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a televised appearance in Paris, where he is on a state visit, that Hawija had been “liberated,” calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world.”

The fall of Hawija was confirmed in a statement on Thursday by the United States-led coalition. “Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign,” said Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II. “Thanks to their efforts, Hawijah will return to local governance and security.”

Although fighting is continuing in surrounding districts, the fall of the Hawija area would add to a series of crushing blows for the militants in Iraq, who would be left in control of only a string of desert outposts in the Euphrates River valley and the city of Qaim, on the border with Syria.

Morale among militants in and around Hawija appears to be deteriorating rapidly. At least 600 men identified by Kurdish forces as Islamic State fighters have surrendered to the Kurds in Kirkuk, about 35 miles from Hawija. An additional 400 are being interrogated on suspicion of being militants. Together, they represent roughly a third of an estimated 3,000 Islamic State fighters in the Hawija area before Iraq began military operations there on Sept. 21.

As in other battles over the past three years, Iraqi forces have been supported in Hawija by American military advisers, forward air controllers, special operations troops, airstrikes and artillery.

Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the United States-led coalition in Baghdad, said on Thursday that the United States had conducted 16 airstrikes in the past week in support of the Hawija operation. The speed of what seems to have been a two-week Iraqi military sweep through Hawija suggests that the militants are no longer able to sustain effective military operations for long periods.

For example, the battle to drive them from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, lasted nine months before it was liberated in July. But the next city to fall from the Islamic State, Tal Afar, took only 11 days.

Iraqi commanders said in telephone interviews from the front on Thursday that militants fleeing the Hawija city center had moved north toward a Kurdish-held district called Dibis, about 25 miles away. They said the advance of Iraq troops had been slowed by roadside bombs planted by militants.

The route taken by the Islamic State fighters to Dibis would lead them to defensive lines held by Kurdish troops known as pesh merga. Militants who surrendered to pesh merga fighters since Sunday appeared to be trying to avoid capture by Shiite Muslim militiamen accused in previous battles of executing militants as well as civilians accused of supporting them.

Kurdish intelligence officials in Dibis said they had been hearing repeated accounts from fleeing Islamic State fighters that the group’s leaders in Hawija had ordered their men to drop their weapons and flee with their families to the safety of Kurdish lines.

About 7,000 family members have accompanied the 1,000 fighters identified since Sept. 21, they said. “I think in the coming days we’ll even see their emirs come over,” said Lt. Pishtiwan Salahi, an investigator with Asayish, the Kurds’ intelligence service.

Pesh merga interrogators in Kirkuk said in interviews on Sunday that any captured men identified as militants would be interrogated and imprisoned.

American officials have worried that the Sept. 25 vote for the Kurdish region of Iraq to pursue independence would undermine the American-led coalition. Pesh merga fighters have fought alongside Iraqi government units and mostly Shiite militias known as Hashed al-Shaabi, or popular mobilization forces, in battles against the militants the past three years.

The Kurdish independence vote has led to a bitter standoff between the Kurds and the Baghdad government, complete with Iraqi threats of military and economic reprisals. Turkey and Iran have also threatened retaliation, and both countries have conducted military maneuvers with Iraqi troops.

Mr. Abadi has made a point of saying that pesh merga forces have not been involved in the Hawija operation beyond maintaining defensive blocking positions. In a televised speech on Tuesday, Mr. Abadi accused pesh merga commanders of being too slow to respond to queries or requests from Iraqi military commanders.

The objective of the Iraqi operation was to evict militants not just from the center of the city, with a population of about 100,000, but from the entire surrounding district, home to about 150,000.

According to United Nations estimates, up to 78,000 civilians remain in Hawija. There have been reports that some have been killed by militants or others blocked from escaping the city. Many civilians may also be too terrified by gunfire, shelling and roadside bombs to try to flee their homes.

More than 7,000 civilians escaped the city during the first 10 days of the operation, the United Nations said. Several thousand more reached Kirkuk by Sunday. An official from the Iraqi Immigration Ministry said on Thursday that more than 9,000 civilians had been taken to camps run by humanitarian groups.

Iraqi commanders in Hawija said on Thursday that the militants had blown up several government buildings, shops and homes in the Hawija city center. They said Iraqi forces were trying to reopen roads and to clear roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings.

The commanders added that Iraqi soldiers had taken control of a bridge in the city where, in September 2015, Islamic State fighters had shot and beheaded several captured pesh merga, Iraqi Army soldiers and Shiite militia fighters.

Nytimes

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