Middle East

IS conflict: Iraq forces retake remote western town of Rutba

Iraqi security forces personnel on the road to Rutba, in Anbar province (16 May 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The recapture of Rutba is the latest victory for Iraqi government forces in Anbar province

Iraqi government forces have regained control of a remote western town from the jihadist group Islamic State (IS), Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says.

Mr Abadi announced that counter-terrorism troops, backed by tribesmen and US-led coalition air strikes, had raised the Iraqi flag in central Rutba.

Coalition spokesman Col Steve Warren said the small town, on the road to Jordan, had "outsized strategic value".

Some 200 militants who were based there put up little resistance, he added.

"A lot of the enemy, frankly, ran away when they saw this force coming."

Col Warren said the fall of Rutba will have an impact on the economies of both Iraq and Jordan, and also deny IS "a critical support zone".

The town, which is also near a key IS-controlled border crossing with Syria, was used by militants to stage operations further north and east in Iraq.

The recapture of Rutba, 360km (225 miles) west of the capital Baghdad, is the latest victory for Iraqi government forces in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.

Troops and allied Sunni tribal fighters last month retook the town of Hit and in February declared that the provincial capital Ramadi had been fully liberated.

The coalition estimates that IS has now lost between 30% and 35% of the territory it once held across Iraq and Syria two years ago.

Iraqi and coalition officials believe the setbacks have prompted IS to turn increasingly to bombing civilian areas.

A wave of attacks in and around Baghdad in the past week has left some 200 people dead, including 69 on Tuesday.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Dozens of people were killed in attacks on predominantly Shia areas of Baghdad on Tuesday

"They appear to have chosen to revert to some of their terrorist roots," Col Warren said. "This is an enemy who has not found success in some time, so what they are trying to do is find a way to throw a punch that actually can land."

The coalition spokesman also announced that a US air strike in Iraq had killed two "high-value" IS militants known as Abu Hamza and Abu Safiya.

Abu Hamza was a former member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to IS, who had led attacks against US forces after the 2003 invasion, he said.

Abu Safiya had been "responsible for staging chemical attacks in the Euphrates river valley", Col Warren added. IS has been accused of using the blister agent sulphur mustard in attacks against Kurdish Peshmerga forces last year.