Iraq forces push ISIL militants from key northern town
BAGHDAD // Iraqi government troops on Thursday pushed ISIL militants from a key town north of the Iraqi capital, days after launching an operation to retake it, a military spokesman said.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes and paramilitary forces, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Shirqat posing another blow to ISIL militants who have suffered major battlefield losses since last year.
In a televised statement on state TV, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig Gen Yahya Rasool, declared the town “fully liberated” with its centre under the control of Iraqi forces and the national flag hoisted over nearby government buildings, including the mayor’s office and the main hospital.
It came a day after a US defence official said a rocket fired by ISIL extremists – which came within hundreds of metres of US forces in Iraq – may have carried a chemical agent.
No one was injured in attack in an unpopulated area near the Qayyara West base, where hundreds of American forces are working to prepare an airfield ahead of Iraq’s offensive to retake the city of Mosul from ISIL. No one showed any immediate signs of exposure to the suspected mustard agent, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The initial test for the suspicious, tar-like black oily substance found was positive for a “mustard agent”. A second test was negative, and a third sample has been sent to a proper laboratory for definitive analysis.
Following the liberation of Shirqat, state TV interrupted normal programming with a series of news alerts announcing the operation and broadcasting patriotic songs. Pictures published by the defence ministry showed soldiers hoisting the Iraqi flag over buildings, the corpses of alleged militants and jubilant residents waving at Iraqi forces.
The spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIL, Col John Dorrian, said that the coalition carried out “a very successful strike that eliminated a significant number of fighters who were trying to flee toward Hawija”, to the east of Shirqat, which is under ISIL control.
The head of the Salahuddin provincial council, Ahmed Al Karim, said that government forces control up to 80 per cent of the city, with the militants pushed to rural areas across the Tigris River. Mr Al Karim said the operation did not displace people, as residents stayed in their homes.
Shirqat is important for Iraqi troops to secure the supply lines to forces stationed in nearby town of Qayyara ahead of Mosul operation. The town lies near the city of Mosul, which is ISIL’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
The Iraqi government is now gearing up for a major offensive to retake Mosul.
Last month, Iraqi forces retook the town of Qayyara, 70km south of Mosul. A string of villages and towns south and south-east of Mosul have also been recaptured as part of an operation launched in March aimed at eventually purging ISIL from the city.
Also on Thursday, Britain said £40 million (Dh192.5m) in humanitarian aid to Iraq, anticipating a wave of displaced people as government forces prepare to recapture Mosul.
The United Nations says the Mosul offensive risks triggering a major humanitarian crisis, with one million or more people potentially fleeing the city.