Iraq launches offensive on ISIL in Anbar province
Baghdad // Iraqi forces launched an offensive against ISIL near the Syrian border in Anbar province on Thursday, piling further pressure on the extremist group’s crumbling “caliphate”.
“A military operation has begun in the western areas of Anbar to liberate them from Daesh,” said Lt Gen Qassem Mohammedi, head of the Iraqi army’s Jazeera operations command.
Gen Mohammedi said the operation was led by the army’s 7th division, police, and fighters from local tribes that have opposed the extremists, with aerial backing from the US-led coalition against ISIL.
The opening of a new front comes as Baghdad and its allies have stepped up their operations to retake Mosul from the extremists, with the US-led coalition saying it had increased the number of its military advisers there to about 450.
Gen Mohammedi said the main targets of the Anbar operation are Aanah, Rawa and Al Qaim, the westernmost Iraqi towns along the Euphrates Valley.
Retaking ISIL hub of Al Qaim, which lies 330 kilometres north-west of Baghdad, is a long-term objective, with the most immediate target the town of Aanah.
“Our forces started advancing from Haditha towards Aanah from several directions,” Gen Mohammedi said.
Haditha was never seized by ISIL when the group swept across much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in 2014 and is home to a tribe that has led the fight against the extremists in the area.
“Zero hour has come to liberate the western areas,” said Nadhom Al Jughaifi, a commander with the Haditha tribal fighters.
Iraqi forces retook large parts of Anbar last year, including its capital Ramadi and the city of Fallujah.
The vast province is a desert area traversed by the Euphrates that borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Security in reconquered areas remains precarious and extremists continue to move across the province.
As it suffered mounting losses, the extremist group stepped up deadly bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital. At least 20 people were killed in two suicide bombings in Baghdad on Thursday, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
ISIL has lost more than half of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and the loss of Mosul would deal a major blow to the “caliphate” it proclaimed there in June 2014.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces are currently involved in an offensive to retake the main northern city, which is also the group’s last major stronghold in the country.
The operation launched on October 17 is Iraq’s largest in years and while significant territory was reconquered around Mosul, making gains inside the city itself has been difficult.
After a lull in operations, Iraqi forces launched a fresh push last week and appear to have found new momentum.
“Iraqi security forces have made significant progress since initiating phase two of their operation to liberate Mosul,” Col John Dorrian, the coalition’s spokesman, said on Wednesday.
He said that was partly owed to increased coalition involvement in the battle, with the deployment of an additional 40 advisers there taking the total to about 450.
“We have increased the number of advise and assist forces that are there with the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] command elements to help advise them as they move forward and to synchronise operations,” he said.
On Wednesday alone, coalition aircraft conducted seven strikes in the Mosul area, destroying a large number of ISIL targets, including five buildings, four mortar positions, four fighting positions, and damaging 27 supply routes.
Prime minister Haider Al Abadi promised that his forces would rid Iraq of ISIL by the end of 2016 but commanders have admitted they were surprised at the strong resistance put up in the city.
According to a top commander in the Counter Terrorism Service that has spearheaded the battle in Mosul, Iraqi forces have now retaken about two thirds of the city’s eastern half.
Col Dorrian said the presence inside the city of hundreds of thousands of civilians had slowed progress.
“There are more than 200,000 buildings in Mosul. And really, in order to do this properly, given the way that the enemy has conducted themselves, you end up having to clear each one,” he said.
* Agence France-Presse