BAGHDAD, Sept 30, (Agencies): Iraqi forces Friday launched an assault on the northern town of Hawija, one of the last bastions in the country still held by the Islamic State group, which is also under attack in neighbouring Syria.
The operation came a day after IS released what it said was an audio recording of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging resistance, the first such intervention in nearly a year. “The leaders of the Islamic State and its soldiers have realised that the path to … victory is to be patient and resist the infidels whatever their alliances,” said the voice in the recording, whose authenticity Washington said it had “no reason to doubt”.
Since Baghdadi’s previous message to his followers last November, the territory the jihadists still hold in the cross-border caliphate they proclaimed in 2014 has shrunk to a fraction of its former extent. “A huge military operation has begun to liberate Hawija and its surrounding areas,” the operation’s commander, Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah, said in a statement.
Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake the jihadist enclave around Hawija on Sept 21, swiftly taking the town of Sharqat on its second day before pushing on towards Hawija itself. Yarallah said Friday’s assault marked the second phase of the operation and aimed to recapture Hawija and the towns of Al-Abbasi, Riyadh and Rashad to its west, east and south.
All are mainly Sunni Arab towns that have long been bastions of insurgency and were bypassed by government forces in their push north on second city Mosul last year which culminated in the jihadists’ defeat in their most emblematic stronghold this July.
Yarallah later announced that troops had taken Al-Abbasi and raised the Iraqi flag there. He said the operation involved the army, the federal police, counter terrorism units and the Rapid Intervention Force, as well as tribal volunteers and the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation force, mainly made up of Iran-trained Shiite militia.
The enclave lies east of the Tigris River and south of one of its major tributaries, the Little Zab, and troops erected pontoon bridges during the night to enable the assault to begin, Yarallah said. The Popular Mobilisation force said IS had set fire to two oil wells in the Alas field, southeast of Hawija, in a bid to provide cover and slow the advance of loyalist forces. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the second phase of the operation to recapture the area.
“As we promised the sons of our country, we are going to liberate every inch of Iraqi land and crush the DAESH (IS) terrorist gangs,” Abadi said. “We are on the verge of a new victory to liberate the residents of these areas from those criminals.” The Hawija enclave is one of just two areas of Iraq still held by IS, along with a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian border which is also under attack. The US-led coalition against the jihadists said Friday that at least 1,200 Iraqi security personnel were killed during the months-long operation to recapture Mosul.
A veteran fighter known as “the sheikh of snipers” has been killed in Iraq’s battle to retake Hawija, his paramilitary force announced Saturday. Abu Tahsin al-Salhi, who took part in conflicts dating back to the 1973 Arab- Israeli war and said he had gunned down at least 320 IS jihadists, died on Friday. He was killed as he advanced on Hawija in northwest Iraq, said Ahmad al-Assadi, spokesman for the Hashed al-Shaabi alliance mostly of Shiite militias fighting alongside government forces against the last jihadist bastions.
At his funeral on Saturday near the southern port city of Basra, close friend Ahmad Ali Hussein said the marksman was widely known by comrades as “the sheikh of snipers” or “hawk eye”. A grey-bearded hulk of a man who drove an offroad motorbike and wore a black-and-white chequered scarf and fingerless mittens, Abu Tahsin was inseparable from his Austrian-manufactured Steyr rifle.