Iraqi forces converging on Islamic State positions in Baiji, Ramadi in big sweep

AFP-JIJI

Iraqi forces advanced on three fronts against the Islamic State group Sunday, flushing out pockets of resistance in and around Baiji and closing in on Ramadi and Hawijah, officers said.

Iraqi security and allied paramilitary forces last week launched a broad offensive on Baiji, about 200 km (120 miles) north of Baghdad.

The city and nearby refinery — the country’s largest — have been one of the worst flash-points since Islamic State launched a sweeping offensive across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June 2014.

Anti-Islamic State forces, including thousands from the Popular Mobilization (Hashed al-Shaabi) force that includes many Tehran-backed Shiite militias, have reconquered most of Baiji and its surroundings.

“They are still combing some neighborhoods of Baiji, including Tamim to the west and the market area in the center,” a police brigadier general said.

“There are still a few IS members in there,” he said.

“The security forces and Hashed forces took up positions to take control of some neighborhoods in Baiji, searching for bombs and booby-trapped houses,” an army major general said.

He described the latest advance in the Baiji area as “the biggest victory since 10th of June 2014,” when Islamic State made massive territorial gains with a lightning offensive that saw Iraq’s federal forces collapse completely.

Since they launched a counterattack last year, government and allied forces have retaken all areas south of Baghdad and others north of the capital, including the city of Tikrit.

The government forces pushed past Baiji on the main road leading north to Mosul, cutting off Islamic State fighters holding the city of Hawijah, east of the Tigris River.

Army and police, backed by hundreds of Sunni tribal fighters incorporated into the Hashed al-Shaabi, began an operation Sunday aimed at surrounding Hawijah.

“The operation started in two areas, one west of Kirkuk around Al-Fatha and the other south of Kirkuk near Allas oil field,” a major general said.

The Kurdish peshmerga forces were not directly involved in this operation but they have made progress of their own in recent weeks, pushing southwest from Kirkuk, which they control.

A security coordination meeting between federal and Kurdish forces and politicians was held in Kirkuk Sunday, Gov. Najmeddin Karim said.

Iraqi forces also continued to tighten the noose around Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar, which Islamic State captured in May.

Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service is leading operations around Ramadi, with backing from the security forces, Sunni tribesmen opposed to Islamic State, and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

“Albu Farraj neighborhood is under full control now. The city of Ramadi is completely isolated from the northern side now,” said Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahalawi, from Anbar Operations Command.

A coalition spokesman said last week the number of Islamic State fighters still inside Ramadi was estimated at 600 to 1,000.