Iraq announces recapture of western town Rutba from ISIL
Baghdad // Iraq announced on Thursday that its forces had recaptured the western town of Rutba, cutting off the militants’ supply route to neighbouring Syria.
“The Joint Operations Command announces the complete liberation of the Rutba district,” the military’s joint operations command said.
Special forces, soldiers and police took part in the operation, the military said.
The US-led coalition which provided air support for the Rutba operation, however, stopped short of saying the town was under the full control of Iraqi forces.
Asked if there were still ISIL fighters in the area, coalition spokesman Steve Warren said: “There’s still quite an amount.”
But Mr Warren expressed confidence the Iraqi forces would successfully hold it.
“They’ve got enough fighters, they’ve got tribal forces there, they’ll hold it just like they’ve held every single other thing they’ve taken,” he said.
On Monday, Iraqi forces launched the drive to retake Rutba, located in western Anbar province along the main road to Jordan.
In addition to its linkage to Syria, Rutba was considered an important support zone which ISIL was using to stage operations into battle areas further north and east.
He described Rutba as a small town with “outsized strategic value” which lies on the main route between Baghdad and Jordan.
“Opening it will impact the economies of both Iraq and Jordan, and will deny [ISIL] a critical support zone as well,” Col Warren said.
Counter-terrorism forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, had entered the town from the south on Tuesday and taken control of Al Intisar district.
Maj Gen Hadi Razij, head of Anbar police, said elite commandos had attacked from the south while police, tribal fighters and the Iraqi army pushed from the north.
“We managed to liberate Rutba district, eliminating many suicide bombers and car bombs,” he told state television.
Maj Gen Razij said troops had also reached Camp Korean Village, a former US military base about 40km further west towards the border, and continued to clear the international highway.
ISIL overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, and later made further advances in Anbar, seizing its capital Ramadi in 2015.
Iraqi forces have since regained significant ground from the extremists, securing the Ramadi area earlier this year and retaking the town of Hit last month.
But parts of Anbar – including its second city Fallujah – are still under ISIL control, as is most of Nineveh province, to its north.
Iraqi forces encountered “light to moderate resistance” in the course of the operation, Col Warren said.
Meanwhile, the top US general for the Middle East arrived unannounced in Baghdad on Thursday to meet with commanders and get an update on the military campaign against ISIL.
Army Gen Joseph Votel, the new head of US Central Command, flew to Baghdad on the second leg of a week-long Middle East tour that began in Kuwait.
His visit comes amid political paralysis in the Iraqi government and a spate of deadly attacks in Baghdad by ISIL operatives. Gen Votel has expressed concern that the militant group may be reverting to what he called its roots as a terrorist organisation.
The Iraqi government said earlier this month that the amount of land under ISIL control had shrunk to 14 per cent of the national territory, from 40 per cent in 2014.
The two major cities still under the extremists’ rule are Fallujah, which lies only 50km west of Baghdad, and Mosul, the capital of Nineveh.
The government and coalition had appeared to focus their planning on Mosul lately – a large northern city with a pre-war population estimated at around two million.
But forces from the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary organisation, which is dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias, have been massing around Fallujah in recent days.
* Agence-France Presse and Reuters
Updated: May 19, 2016 04:00 AM