BAGHDAD - Iraqi forces retook one of the militant Islamic State (IS) group's last two enclaves in the country on Thursday, overrunning the longtime insurgent bastion of Hawija after a two-week offensive.
Only a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the border with Syria remains to be retaken from the militants who have suffered defeat after defeat in Iraq this year.
“I announce the liberation of the city of Hawija,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a news conference in Paris. “All that remains is the strip on the border with Syria,” he added.
The operation's commander, Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah, had earlier announced that troops, police and paramilitaries had retaken the city centre.
Hawijah, 230 kilometres north of Baghdad, was at the centre of a pocket of mainly Sunni Arab towns that were among the final holdouts from the territory seized by the militants in 2014. The town had been an insurgent bastion since soon after the United States-led invasion of 2003, earning it the nickname of “Kandahar in Iraq” for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's citadel in Afghanistan.
The area's population is deeply hostile both to the government in Baghdad and to the Kurds who form the historic majority in adjacent areas. Government forces bypassed it in their advance north to second city Mosul last year, which culminated in the militants' defeat in the emblematic bastion in July.
'Victory for whole world'
Hawija lies between the two main routes north from Baghdad — to Mosul and to the city of Kirkuk and the autonomous Kurdish region — and it recapture is both a symbolic and a strategic victory for the government.
“This a victory not only for Iraqis but also for the whole world,” Abadi said, as he announced the town's recapture after talks in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.
France is part of a US-led coalition that has been backing the campaign against the IS. There was no immediate word on the fate of civilians in Hawija. The United Nations said this week that an estimated 12,500 people had fled since the launch of the offensive to retake the town and surrounding areas last month.
The UN's humanitarian affairs office said the number of people still in the town was unknown but could be as high as 78,000. It said humanitarian agencies have set up checkpoints, camps and emergency sites capable of receiving more than 70,000 people who could flee.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said many of those arriving in the camps had little more than the clothes on their backs. “In addition to the terror they have experienced during years under the control of the IS group, many of the families who are arriving are malnourished,” its acting area manager, Silvia Beccacece, said.
Coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon hailed the latest advance on Twitter, saying Iraqi forces were continuing “to crush ISIS in Hawija pocket” and that Abadi's pledge to “liberate all Iraqi territory and to cleanse it from terrorists” was “close” to being fulfilled.
The IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been forced out of most of the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria during a lightning offensive in the summer of 2014 that was followed by its declaration of a cross-border “caliphate”.
At one point it controlled nearly a third of Iraqi territory. Last week, it was ousted from Anna, one of three towns it still held in the Euphrates Valley, and Iraqi forces are preparing to advance upstream towards the other two, Rawa and Al-Qaim.
Provincial civil defence chief General Fawzi Yassin said it had taken until Thursday to clear nearly 1,000 mines and booby-traps that the militants had planted in and around Anna. Town council chief Abdel Karim al-Ani told AFP: “This clearance operation is going to allow the displaced to return to their homes.”
The US-led coalition is also backing an Arab-Kurdish alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, that is battling to oust the IS from its de facto Syrian capital Raqa. The SDF has captured about 90 per cent of Raqa and is fighting fierce battles with remaining IS militants.
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 militants in Deir Ezzor — one by the SDF, the other by government forces supported by Russia.