Iraqi troops retake control of Sunni town from ISIL
BAGHDAD// Iraqi soldiers backed by Shiite militiamen retook control on Sunday of a Sunni town seized previously by Islamic militants, said an Iraqi official and state-run TV, a rare victory for Iraqi security forces that have been battling to regain areas lost to the militants.
The provincial official said that government forces entered Jurf Al Sakhar, which fell to ISIL fighters in late July.
Col Muthana Khalid, spokesman of the Babil provincial police, said the battle over the town left dozens of militants dead or wounded.
“Our soldiers raised the Iraqi flag over government offices and buildings in the town. It is another victory achieved against the terrorists,” Col Khalid added.
The town, 50 kilometres south of the capital, is part of a predominantly Sunni ribbon that runs just south of Baghdad.
State-run TV showed footage of Iraqi soldiers walking near Jurf Al Sakhar police station and the municipal building. Also, explosive experts were shown detonating some roadside bombs planted by the insurgents in order to delay the advance of the Iraqi forces.
The cleared town lies on a road usually taken by Shiite pilgrims who will be heading in droves to the holy Shiite city of Karbala next week in order to commemorate the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein – one of the most revered Shiite martyrs.
ISIL captured large swathes of territory in western and northern Iraq in an offensive earlier this year, plunging the country into its worst crisis since US troops left at the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, the US military said on Sunday it launched airstrikes north and west of Baghdad, hitting a small ISIL unit and destroying armed vehicles.
Police and hospital officials said a bomb exploded on a commercial street in western Baghdad, killing three people and wounding eight others. In southern Baghdad, a bomb blast near a line of shops killed two persons and wounded seven others.
In Syria, Kurdish forces thwarted a new attempt on azSunday by ISIL fighters to cut off the town of Kobani from the border with Turkey before Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements can deploy.
The pre-dawn assault marked the fourth straight day the militants had attacked the Syrian side of the border crossing as the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters prepare to head for Kobani, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Kurdish forces, backed by US-led airstrikes, have been holding out for weeks against an ISIL offensive around Kobani, which has become a high-profile symbol of efforts to stop the militants’ advance.
The US military said in its latest update that American warplanes carried out five airstrikes near Kobani on Saturday and Sunday, destroying seven ISIL vehicles and an ISIL-held building.
Ground fighting for Kobani has killed more than 800 people since the ISIL offensive began on September 16, with the militants losing 481 fighters and the Kurds 313, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information.
Among the dead are 21 civilians, but the figures exclude ISIL losses to US-led airstrikes, which the Pentagon has said run to “several hundred”.
The militant assault prompted nearly all of the enclave’s population to flee, with some 200,000 refugees streaming over the border into neighbouring Turkey.
Last week, under heavy US pressure, Turkey unexpectedly announced it would allow the peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the fight for Kobane.
The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in the town has close links with the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in south-eastern Turkey and Ankara had previously resisted calls to allow in reinforcements.
On Sunday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the PKK of not wanting Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq to help it fight ISIL in Kobani. Mr Erdogan said that the Syrian Kurdish party the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has been leading the defence of Kobani, fears losing its influence in northern Syria when the peshmerga arrive in the coming days.
His comments underlined the extent of Turkey’s animosity towards the PYD, which Mr Erdogan described as a terror group linked to the PKK.
“The PYD does not want the peshmerga to come,” Mr Erdogan said in comments published by newspapers including the Milliyet and Hurriyet dailies.
Meanwhile, Germany’s intelligence service believes ISIL fighters in northern Iraq possess anti-aircraft weapons that could take down passenger jets, according to a newspaper report.
The BND federal intelligence service had told German legislators about its suspicion in a confidential briefing late last week, reported the Bild am Sonntag newspaper without citing named sources.
In the briefing, the BND reportedly warned that ISIL fighters possess portable rocket launchers captured from Syrian army stocks. Some dated from the 1970s, while others were modern and advanced.
The shoulder-mounted rocket launchers – known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems or Manpads – were of Russian design but may have been manufactured in other countries including Bulgaria or China, the report said.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Press