Middle East

Iraq forces retake town of Hawija from IS

men in tank with flags Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iraqi pro-government forces have made swift progress against IS in recent months

Iraq's prime minister says its military has retaken Hawija, the main town in one of the last two enclaves of so-called Islamic State in the country.

Haider al-Abadi told reporters that Hawija had been "liberated" as part of an operation launched two weeks ago.

A few villages east of the town are believed to still be under IS control.

Once they fall, IS will be left with only a stretch of the Euphrates river valley around al-Qaim, in the western desert near the border with Syria.

The jihadist group still controls large parts of the valley in the neighbouring Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, but it is under pressure there from Syrian pro-government forces and a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

Hawija, which lies 215km (135 miles) north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, has been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgents since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The town fell to IS in June 2014, when the jihadist group seized control of much of northern and western Iraq and proclaimed the creation of a "caliphate".

But it was surrounded and cut off from other IS-held territory more than a year ago, when government forces advanced north towards the second city of Mosul.

The offensive on Hawija began on 21 September and has involved army, police and special forces units, as well as the Shia-led paramilitary Popular Mobilisation.

With the help of US-led coalition air strikes and military advisers, they recaptured the town of Shirqat on the second day and then moved steadily south-eastwards.

On Wednesday, the operation's commander announced that troops had begun a major operation to "liberate" Hawija itself. They quickly breached jihadist defences in the north-western outskirts and stormed the town centre as night fell.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Troops used a bulldozer to push over an IS sign outside Hawija

Speaking at a press conference in Paris on Thursday morning after holding talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr Abadi called the recapture of Hawija a "victory not just of Iraq, but of the whole world".

But he said the victory had been achieved "despite the crises that some people have tried to drag us into" - an apparent reference to the referendum on independence held by the autonomous Kurdistan Region last week despite opposition from the government in Baghdad and the international community.

Mr Abadi wants the Kurdistan Regional Government to annul the result - more than 90% voted in favour of secession - or face punitive sanctions, international isolation and possible military intervention.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he did not want an armed confrontation with Kurds

He banned direct international flights to the region last week and on Tuesday called for a "joint administration" in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas that have been controlled by the Kurds since 2014 but claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

"We do not want an armed confrontation, we don't want clashes, but the federal authority must prevail and nobody can infringe on the federal authority," Mr Abadi said on Thursday.

"I call on the Peshmerga to remain an integral part of the Iraqi forces under the authority of the federal authorities, to guarantee the security of citizens so that we can rebuild these zones."

Mr Macron said France wanted "stability in Iraq" and called for Kurdish rights to be recognised "in the framework of the constitution".

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