Iraqi forces battle Islamic State jihadists in Ramadi, Kirkuk

AFP-JIJI

Iraqi security forces and allied tribesmen were battling Wednesday to defend the governor’s office in Anbar province capital Ramadi from an attack by the Islamic State jihadist group, officers said.

Kurdish peshmerga forces also engaged in hours of heavy fighting in Kirkuk province in northern Iraq against Islamic State, which spearheaded a major offensive in June that overran key parts of the country.

“We are defending and protecting the governmental complex” in Ramadi, said police Col. Hamid Shandukh, adding militants were within a few hundred meters of the governor’s office.

The fighting began when soldiers and police pulled back from Al-Hoz, an area that stretches from Ramadi’s south to its center, Shandukh said, adding the government complex area was now being defended by security forces and hundreds of tribesmen.

Another officer, Col. Salah Arrak al-Alwani, also confirmed fighting in central Ramadi, and said it had been going on for nine hours.

“If we lose Anbar, that means we will lose Iraq,” the province’s governor, Ahmed al-Dulaimi, told Al-Anbar television from Germany, where he is recovering after being wounded by a mortar round in September.

“I will very soon be with the tribes and the security forces in Anbar to fight” the Islamic State group, Dulaimi said.

Parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, to its east, have been outside government control since the beginning of the year, but much more of the province has since been overrun by Islamic State, prompting warnings it could fall completely.

Iraqi security forces wilted under the initial June Islamic State onslaught, but are now backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, international advisers, Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribes, and have begun to claw back some areas.

Kurdish peshmerga forces have also battled Islamic State across a front stretching from the border with Syria to Iran, sometimes in concert with federal forces and other times alone.

On Wednesday, the peshmerga held off a major attack by Islamic State forces in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, officers said.

“They are targeting Kirkuk and they want to control the oil sites,” said peshmerga Maj. Gen. Westa Rasul.

The attack began early on Wednesday morning against three villages west of the city of Kirkuk, sparking fighting that lasted for hours, Rasul and two other officers said.

Islamic State managed to seize one village, but Kurdish forces backed by airstrikes later succeeded in retaking it.

One policeman and five peshmerga, including a colonel and the son of a Kurdish politician, were killed and 28 wounded in the fighting, officers and a doctor said.

When federal security forces crumbled under the weight of the June offensive, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of a swath of disputed northern territory it wants to incorporate against Baghdad’s wishes.

But Islamic State turned its attention north in August, driving Kurdish troops back toward their regional capital Irbil and helping spark the U.S.-led air campaign.

Backed by the strikes, Kurdish troops have regained territory from Islamic State, but the group still holds parts of Kirkuk province and other northern areas.