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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Iraqi forces retake last town held by ISIL

Offensive on Rawa completed with hours as militants fled towards the border with Syria

Iraqi security forces gather in the Rawa area on November 11, 2017 during an operation to retake the Euphrates Valley town from the ISIL. AFP
Iraqi security forces gather in the Rawa area on November 11, 2017 during an operation to retake the Euphrates Valley town from the ISIL. AFP

Iraqi forces have retaken the last town in the country still held by the ISIL in a lightning offensive near the border with Syria on Friday.

Government troops and paramilitary units "liberated the whole of Rawa and raised the Iraqi flag on all of its official buildings," said General Abdelamir Yarallah of the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which has overseen the fight against ISIL.

The operation was launched at dawn, when Iraqi military units and local tribal fighters entered the western neighbourhoods of Rawa, which sits on the Euphrates River in the western province of Anbar.

An army general at the front had predicted that the battle for the town would be swift as "the majority of ISIL fighters who were in the town have fled towards the Syrian border".

The launch of the attack came as the Syrian government forces battled for a second day to retake the town of Albu Kamal just across the border. The town was seized last week but ISIL managed to recapture it within days.

The US-led coalition battling ISIL said on Thursday that the group had lost almost all of its territory after a three-year campaign.

"Since our coalition was formed in 2014, ISIS has lost 95 per cent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria," Washington's envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, said after a meeting in Jordan.

The extremist group swept across Syria and Iraq the same year, declaring a cross-border "caliphate" roughly the size of Britain and attracting thousands of foreign fighters.

But several military offensives, including those backed by the US-led coalition, have since seen ISIL lose most areas it once controlled.

"More than 7.5 million people have now been liberated" from ISIL, Mr McGurk said, adding that the group's finances are now "at their lowest levels to date".

With the extremists' dream of establishing a "caliphate" in tatters, western attention is increasingly pivoting to trying to block foreign fighters from returning home to carry out attacks.

Mr McGurk said that flows of foreign ISIL fighters into Syria had "nearly stopped", and that the militants were increasingly being picked up as they crossed borders.

"We are enhancing cooperation and border security, aviation security, law enforcement, financial sanctions, counter-messaging, and intelligence sharing to prevent ISIL from carrying out attacks in our homelands," he said.