Iraqi Kurds drive Islamic State out of villages
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Iraqi Kurds drive Islamic State out of villages

Peshmerga fighters expand area of control around oil-rich Kirkuk, sending IS fighters fleeing

Illustrative: Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (AP)
Illustrative: Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (AP)

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq drove the Islamic State group from more than 140 sq. kilometers (54 sq. miles) of territory near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and cleared part of a major highway Wednesday.

The Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by US-led airstrikes pushed the militants beyond Ghara Heights and Mount Batiwa, south of Kirkuk, and secured a stretch of a highway which connects Kirkuk to the central city of Samarra, a statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council said.

The villages of Meziriya, Gubebe, Seda, Mohammed Khalil, Qows Kurd, Tal Ward, Khalef and Mansouria — all south of Kirkuk — were purged of militants, the statement said.

At least 10 peshmerga fighters died in the operation and another 16 were wounded, according to a senior security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists. The Kurdish government said some militants were seen fleeing toward the contested town of Hawijah.

The IS group swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 and holds roughly a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Kurdish fighters made significant advances against the militant group early this year, but their progress has stalled around areas the extremists view as strategic — particularly near the border.

The jihadist group has launched numerous attacks on Kirkuk in its bid to expand access to oil resources, but peshmerga fighters have managed to defend the city.

A statement from the US-led coalition Wednesday noted three airstrikes near Kirkuk over the previous day, which it said had destroyed a tactical unit, 10 rocket rails, a weapons cache, five militant vehicles and a car bomb. Another eight airstrikes were conducted in the area around Hawijah over the same period, the statement said.

Meanwhile, the IS group released a graphic video purportedly showing the beheading of a group of peshmerga fighters. The video, distributed by the Sunni militant group on Twitter, shows the Kurdish speaking men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before men cloaked in black and carrying daggers. It warned of the “inevitable fate” of other peshmerga fighters still being held captive.

The authenticity of the video could not immediately be verified but it was distributed on websites with links to Islamic State.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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