Baghdad: Iraq brought all of its territory still held by the Islamic State group under attack on Thursday, throwing the jihadists on the defensive across their self-proclaimed "caliphate" extending into neighbouring Syria.
Security forces backed by paramilitary units launched a dawn assault on a besieged Islamic State-held pocket around the northern town of Hawija, just days after attacking the jihadists' only other foothold in the country.
The territory still held by Islamic State has been dwindling fast since its defeat in Iraq's second city Mosul in July, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border with Syria.
Most of its onetime Syria bastion Raqa, long a byword for its most gruesome atrocities, is now in the hands of US-backed fighters, while elsewhere in Syria Islamic State has suffered major losses to Russian-backed government forces. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi predicted that the assault on the Hawija region would swiftly bring a new victory against the crumbling jihadists.
The mainly Sunni Arab enclave, which was bypassed by government forces in their advance north to Mosul last year, has been a bastion of insurgency ever since the first year of the US-led occupation in 2003.
After the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighbouring towns form the last enclave still held by Islamic State in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.
"At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Islamic State's terrorist groups," Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
"Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God," he said.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the Islamic State-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been amassing in recent days. A spokesman for Iraq's Joint Operations Command, General Yahya Rasool, said retaking Sharqat was the first goal of the offensive.
The US-led coalition fighting Islamic State hailed the new offensive by the Iraqi security forces against the jihadist group. "Islamic State is losing ground and failing in every battle. Soon Islamic State will have no sanctuary in Iraq," said coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon.
Humanitarian organisations expressed concern for the fate of civilians caught up in the offensive. "The 85,000 civilians still in and around Hawija, including around 40,000 children, now face a terrifying time as they worry about getting caught up in the fighting or being hit by an air strike," said International Rescue Committee acting country director Jason Kajer.
"For those who decide to flee, there is a significant risk of being targeted by Islamic State snipers or killed by a mine." The Hawija area was the second after Mosul to be captured by Islamic State in its lightning offensive through the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in 2014.
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Updated Date: Sep 21, 2017 19:33:43 IST