Baghdad (AFP) – 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…