Islamic State driven out of last stronghold in northern Iraq
Government forces defeat jihadists in Hawija as they deal with Kurdish independence push
Fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi backing the Iraqi forces, advance through Hawija, after retaking the city from Islamic State group fighters. Photograph: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi forces announced on Thursday they had captured Islamic State’s last stronghold in northern Iraq, leaving the militant group holed up near the Syrian border as its self-proclaimed “caliphate” shrinks further.
The town of Hawija and the surrounding areas fell in an offensive by US-backed Iraqi government troops and Iranian-trained and armed Shia paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.
Some fighting took place to the north and east of the town where the militants were surrounded.
With the fall of Hawija, which lies near the Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk, the only area that remains under control of Islamic State in Iraq is a stretch alongside the western border with Syria, where the militant group is also in retreat.
The capture of Hawija was a boost for the Iraqi government, which faces a separate crisis in the north of the country, where the Kurdish minority last month voted overwhelmingly in support of independence for their autonomous region.
In Hawija, state TV showed footage of Iraqi forces raising flags in one of the town’s squares while Humvees patrolled empty streets littered with car wrecks, houses riddled with bullets and shattered storefronts.
“The army’s 9th armoured division, the Federal Police, the Emergency Response division and . . . Popular Mobilisation liberated Hawija,” said a statement from the joint operations commander, Lieut Gen Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah.
Thick black smoke rose from areas surrounding Hawija, from oil wells set on fire by the militants to prevent air detection.
The capture of Hawija brings Iraqi forces into direct contact with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who control Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic region claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Kirkuk shaped up as a flashpoint last month when the KRG included the city in the referendum on Kurdish independence in northern Iraq.
“We don’t want any aggression or confrontations but the federal authority must be imposed in the disputed areas,” Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi told a news conference in Paris with French president Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Macron offered to mediate between the Iraqi government and Kurdish regional authorities, and promised to maintain a military presence there until Islamic State, also known as Isis, was defeated.
The Iraqi government has imposed sanctions in response to the independence vote, but Mr Abadi said he could understand the Kurds’ “aspirations”, provided they were expressed in accordance with the constitution.
The outcome of the referendum has raised concerns in Iraq and abroad that a conflict might break out there along ethnic lines, potentially weakening the campaign against Islamic State.
Turkey, which is battling a 30-year insurgency by its own Kurdish militants, has led regional opposition to the Iraqi Kurds’ independence hopes.
Stepping up his rhetoric on the issue, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would soon close its border with northern Iraq and shut its air space in response to the referendum.
He added that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would jointly decide on closing the flow of oil from northern Iraq, a vital source of earnings for Iraqi Kurdistan.
On Wednesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose country has big energy interests in Kurdistan, said it was in no one’s interest to cut off oil supplies from the territory.
But Mr Erdogan said that “if a decision will be made on closing oil taps in the region, that will be made by us. Turkey, Iran and Iraq’s central government will do so together.”