BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias took control of about two dozen villages from Islamic State fighters in the eastern province of Diyala near the border with Iran, security sources and local officials said on Monday.
The assault, which began Friday, enabled Shi'ite militias, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen to push the militants out of the Muqdadiya area, the closest Islamic State outpost to the Iranian border about 40 km (25 miles) to the east.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has been trying to push back Islamic State since it swept through northern Iraq in June, meeting virtually no resistance.
"We managed on Jan. 25 and after three days' tough battle to defeat the terrorists in northern Muqdadiya and we cleansed all the villages of Daesh," said Hadi al-Amri, head of the Badr Organisation, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
He told a news conference broadcast on state television on Monday at least 58 soldiers and pro-government fighters were killed in the operation and 247 wounded.
About 65 Islamic State fighters were also killed, Sadiq al-Hussaini, chairman of the security panel of Diyala's provincial council, told Reuters.
He said other militants had fled but did not specify where. Mountainous terrain could make it difficult to eliminate Islamic State from the area.
Previous seizures have often been followed by a counter-offensive and it was not clear how strong a hold the pro-government forces had on the area.
Residents and security sources said Shi'ite militias had destroyed several mosques and set fire to dozens of houses in the village of Shirween, even some belonging to Sunni fighters who had participated in the offensive.
"After liberating some villages in northern Muqdadiya, a group of militias assaulted us and accused us of being IS members. After they restricted our movement, they began to blow up the large houses," said Salam Abdullah al-Jobouri, a Sunni tribal fighter.
An army major, a local official and a Sunni tribal leader confirmed the reports. The major said security forces were unable to stop the militias.
"We know such actions should stop and could send a wrong message to the residents of other villages, but I'm afraid we do not have the power to stop it," he told Reuters.
The Interior Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.
While Islamic State's advance has forced thousands of people from their homes, government attempts to regain territory have also displaced many.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams)
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2015 01:02:01 IST