BAGHDAD, May 16, (Agencies): Iraqi security forces and allied fighters launched an operation on Monday to retake the town of Rutba from the Islamic State jihadist group, the military said.
Special forces, soldiers, police, border guards and pro-government paramilitaries are involved in the operation to retake the Anbar province town, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
Tanks and artillery are taking part in the operation, which is also backed by air support from Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition against IS, it said.
Rutba, located in western Anbar province along the main road to Jordan, has been held by the jihadist group since 2014.
“Rutba’s important to the enemy because it’s another support zone for them,” said Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US-led operation against IS.
IS uses it “to stage and prepare forces for operations in … the main battle area,” Warren told journalists in Baghdad last week.
“It’s not heavily defended as is Fallujah or as was Ramadi,” he said, referring to the capital of Anbar, which has been retaken, and its second city, which IS still holds.
Warren said the number of IS fighters in Rutba varies from around 100 up to several hundred, and that once the Iraqis “decide they want to liberate Rutba, they’ll be able to.”
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June of that year, and later made further advances in Anbar, seizing Ramadi in 2015.
Iraqi forces have since regained significant ground from the jihadists, securing the Ramadi area earlier this year and retaking the town of Heet last month.
But parts of Anbar — including Fallujah — are still under IS control, as is most of Nineveh province, to its north.
And the jihadists are still able to carry out bombings in government-held areas — something they did more frequently prior to the June 2014 offensive.
As IS continues to lose ground, it has in recent weeks stepped up its campaign of bombings, including three in Baghdad last Wednesday that killed nearly 100 people.
Islamic State has not gained significant ground since it took the Iraqi city of Ramadi a year ago, which it then lost in December, as the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has been helped by better intelligence and better equipped local forces, a senior US official said on Sunday.
Islamic State “is shrinking so they are very much on the defensive,” Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy in the fight against Islamic State, told a news conference in Amman.
Islamic State controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and is proving a potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.
McGurk said that US-led coalition effort to capture Mosul and Raqqa was making progress.
“We are doing precision strikes in Mosul almost every day,” he added. “There is constant synchronized pressure,” he said.
McGurk cited a recent operation in which the coalition located and targeted Islamic State’s cash stores in Mosul and “took out hundreds of millions of dollars out of their coffers.”
This triggered a cash crunch that forced the militants to cut the pay of their fighters by half. He did not say when the operation took place.
Islamic militants’ nervousness was evidenced by the recent public executions in the city’s main square and a widespread clamp down on internet services in Mosul, McGurk said.
In Raqqa, McGurk said valuable intelligence gathered from a major trove of data and information obtained by US special forces in a raid in eastern Syria last year allowed the coalition to better target militants, McGurk said.
“We will be beginning over the coming weeks and months a pressure campaign on Raqqa in all its aspects,” said McGurk.
President Barack Obama’s decision last month to raise the number of special forces in northern Syria which was the biggest expansion of US ground troops since its civil war began, would help accelerate recent gains by US-backed local forces, McGurk said.
He cited the militants’ loss of the strategic town of Shadadi in northeast Syria in February to the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces formed from Kurdish and Arab forces.
“We don’t want US forces cleaning these cities … We believe a sustainable model is for local people to take back their territories and homes and it’s took some time to organise local forces to do that. You can see we are starting to have some real momentum now,” he added.
The United States and its allies conducted 14 strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, the coalition leading the operations said.
In a statement released on Monday, the Combined Joint Task Force said six strikes near four cities in Syria struck three tactical units and a financial headquarters and destroyed a vehicle, a rocket rail and four fighting positions.
In Iraq, eight strikes near five cities denied access to terrain, suppressed a mortar position and destroyed a bunker, an artillery piece and two vehicles, among other targets, the statement said.