Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced yesterday that government forces had retaken the northern town of Hawija from Daesh militants leaving them concentrated in several outposts along the border of Syria, according to the Associated Press.
Al-Abadi made the announcement during a state visit to France where he asserted that this was “a victory not only for Iraqis, but also for the whole world”.
Whilst skirmishes reportedly continued for some time after the announcement, the US-led coalition confirmed the “swift and decisive victory”, which had driven out fighters from 96 villages surrounding their urban base.
Hawija is of significant strategic importance in the fight against Daesh, lying between two main routes north of Baghdad; one leading to Kirkuk and the autonomous Kurdish region, the other to Mosul and further on to the Iraqi border with Syria and Turkey.
Iraqi and US-led coalition planes had stepped up their aerial assaults on Hawija last month, targeting the militant group’s bases and weapons facilities. Daesh had fiercely resisted the campaign, torching oil wells near the town to disrupt planned airstrikes last week.
Daesh took control of Hawija in 2014 and held over 78,000 civilians hostage in the town and surrounding villages.
Earlier this week, the UN warned that fighting between government forces and militants was displacing thousands of people, and reminded all forces that citizens must be protected and allowed to leave the city. A report by Human Rights Watch released last week had found that Shia militias were committing numerous rights abuses, including the detention and torture of civilians.
At its peak, Daesh once controlled a third of Iraq and neighbouring Syria, but has lost most of its hold on the region following assaults from the Iraqi army, a US-led international coalition and Kurdish forces. Last month, the group was driven from Tal Afar in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province. One month earlier, the northern city of Mosul – once the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” -fell to the army after a nine-month siege.
Daesh’s rapidly diminishing presence in the country is now largely confined to the desert towns of Rawa and Al-Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province near the Syrian border.
Once Hawija is secure, Iraqi forces are expected to proceed towards Kirkuk, a city held by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces. The city is claimed by the Kurds and the Iraqi government leading many to fear clashes as Baghdad continues to reject the result of the region’s unofficial independence referendum last week.