Iraqi Army, Shiite militias push Islamic State out of key southern towns; Kurds make gains in north


Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias seized control of the strategic town of Jurf al-Sakhar near Baghdad from the Islamic State group Saturday and Kurdish fighters made gains in the north after heavy coalition airstrikes against the Sunni militants.

Iraqi troops and their Shiite allies broke the grip of the Islamic State in Jurf al-Sakhar after months of fighting against insurgents determined to march on the capital.

“Our forces with the support of the volunteers are in total control over Jurf al-Sakhar now and the terrorists fled to the southwest areas of the town,” a spokesman for security forces there said.

A victory could allow Iraqi forces to prevent the Sunni insurgents — positioned in several locations around Baghdad — from edging closer to the capital, sever connections to their strongholds in western Anbar province and stop them infiltrating the mainly Shiite south.

The security officials said the Sunni insurgents fled to the two nearby villages of al-Farisiya and Hay al-Askari and were still attacking with sniper fire and mortars. Government forces were preparing for a major overnight operation against them.

In the latest fighting, 67 members of the Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias as well as 300 Islamic State fighters were killed, the officials said.

It was not possible independently verify the death tolls in the town 60 km (40 miles) south of Baghdad.

Speaking on state television from the town, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraqis forced out by fighting would soon be able to return to their homes.

The Islamic State group swept through northern Iraq over the summer, facing little resistance from U.S.-trained government troops.

The extremist group then declared a caliphate that threatened to reach Baghdad, rattling the Shiite-led government and intensifying sectarian bloodshed.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed seven Shiite militiamen in a town just north of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

The Islamic State group controls large chunks of the Sunni heartland in Iraq’s western Anbar province, as well as swaths of Syria, as it pursues its goal of redrawing the map of the Middle East.

Sunni insurgents have been moving fighters, weapons and supplies from western Iraq through secret desert tunnels to Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraqi officials have said. Now it appears government forces may be able to disrupt that network.

While the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias have resisted efforts by Islamic State group to move closer to Baghdad, Kurdish forces have also gained ground, recapturing territory in the north.

The Kurds retook the town of Zumar and several nearby villages from Islamic State militants early Saturday after heavy coalition airstrikes against the insurgents, security sources said.

If the Kurds manage to hold Zumar, that could enable them to disrupt Islamic State supply lines to nearby towns and cities.

A Kurdish intelligence officer in Zumar said peshmerga forces had advanced from five directions in the early morning and encountered fierce resistance. A spokesman for the peshmerga also said Zumar was now in Kurdish hands.

Zumar was one of the first Kurdish-controlled towns to be overrun in August by the Islamic State group, which went on to threaten the autonomous region’s capital, Irbil, prompting airstrikes by the United States — a campaign since joined by Britain and France.

If the Kurds are able to keep Zumar, it would also make it easier for them to advance on Sinjar, where militants from the Islamic State are besieging members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority on a mountain.

Helped by the airstrikes, Kurds have regained ground but progress has been hampered by a lack of heavy weaponry and by homemade bombs and booby-traps set by the militants.

Gains have been easily lost in the war against the Islamic State group.

The Kurds claimed victory in Zumar in September, only to withdraw from the town again after suffering heavy losses.

One peshmerga fighter deployed in the area Saturday said a sniper was still at large in a village adjacent to Zumar, and a car bomb had exploded when they approached a vehicle, killing seven peshmerga.

In another village, Ayn al-Helwa, the peshmerga said 17 militants had been taken captive, all of them Sunni Turkmen.

While U.S. airstrikes have had some impact on the insurgents, it is not clear whether they will be enough to secure a defeat in the long term in the major oil producer and in Syria.

The United States and its allies conducted 22 airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq on Friday and Saturday, U.S. Central Command said.

U.S. warplanes also destroyed an Islamic State artillery piece near Kobani in Syria, officials said Saturday. The town near Turkey’s border appears in less danger of falling, but the threat remains, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The 22 strikes in Iraq included attacks on frequently targeted areas near the vital Mosul dam, the city of Fallujah and the northern city of Baiji, home to the country’s biggest oil refinery.

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