Iraq forces assault last IS bastion, advance on Kurds

Baghdad seeking to reassert federal control of long disputed territory after Kurdish independence referendum

Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, 100 kms east of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on October 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED)
Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, 100 kms east of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on October 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi troops launched an assault on the last Islamic State group bastion in the country on Thursday even as the Kurds said Baghdad’s forces had attacked their fighters near the border with Turkey.

There had been fears that the bitter dispute that has raged between the Baghdad government and Iraqi Kurdish leaders since they held a referendum for independence last month would hamper the campaign against the jihadists.

Iraqi forces have retaken more than 90 percent of the territory IS seized in the country in 2014, with the jihadists now confined to a stretch of the Euphrates Valley adjoining some of the last areas they still hold in Syria.

“The heroic legions are advancing into the last den of terrorism in Iraq to liberate Al-Qaim, Rawa and the surrounding villages and hamlets,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.

“They will all return to the arms of the motherland thanks to the determination and endurance of our fighting heroes,” he added.

“The people of IS have no choice but to die or surrender.”

The US-led coalition battling IS said it was “the last big fight” against the jihadists.

Iraqi forces flash the sign for victory as they advance in the southern outskirts of Kirkuk towards the city during an operation against Kurdish fighters on October 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

On the Syrian side of the border, Russian-backed government forces have been pushing down the Euphrates valley while US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters have been attacking the jihadists from the north.

The launch of the offensive against IS’s last Iraqi redoubt comes with thousands of Iraqi federal troops and militia engaged in an operation to reassert federal control over thousands of square kilometers (miles) of territory long disputed with the Kurds.

On Thursday, federal troops and allied paramilitaries stepped up that operation, assaulting Kurdish forces in a disputed oil-rich area of Nineveh province in the far north near the Turkish border, Kurdish authorities said.

“As of 6 am (0300 GMT), Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed PMF (Hashed al-Shaabi — Popular Mobilization Forces) are shelling peshmerga positions from Zummar front, northwest Mosul, using heavy artillery,” the top defense body of the autonomous Kurdish regional government said.

“They are advancing towards peshmerga positions.”

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