Iraq forces launch push on ISIL-held town as it prepares for Mosul offensive
KIRKUK, IRAQ // Iraqi forces launched an operation on Tuesday to retake a strategic northern town from ISIL as the army prepared a broad offensive on the extremist bastion of Mosul.
It came a day after a top US general said the long-awaited push on Mosul by Iraqi forces will be ready in October.
Army and tribal forces pushed towards Sherqat, a town ISIL fighters seized more than two years ago when they swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.
The town lies on the west bank of the Tigris river 260 kilometres north-west of Baghdad and around 80km south of Mosul.
Iraqi forces have already reconquered other towns north of Sherqat on the way to Mosul but the question of Shiite militia involvement in military operations there had held up the push.
“The operation to liberate Sherqat started at 5.30am from several directions ... with the support of coalition forces,” Joint Operations Command spokesman Yahya Rasool said.
“We are making good progress,” he said. “Sherqat is important, we can’t move on Mosul and have terrorists control Sherqat.”
Sherqat lies in the far north of Salaheddin province, which includes the cities of Samarra and Tikrit, and close to the border with Nineveh province of which Mosul is the capital.
Ahmed Al Assadi, the spokesman of the Hashed Al Shaabi — or the Popular Mobilisation — paramilitary force, also announced the operation.
“The sons of Hashed Al Shaabi and the Iraqi army backed by the air force launched the ‘Sherqat Dawn’ operation to finish expelling those terrorist gangsters from usurped Iraqi land,” he said.
The Hashed Al Shaabi, which has played a big part in retaking ISIL-held areas since 2014, is nominally under the control of the prime minister but dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militia.
It also includes less powerful Sunni tribal forces supporting the government against ISIL.
Mr Rasool stressed that only tribal forces were fighting in Sherqat, not Shiite militias.
On Monday, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen Joseph Dunford, said Iraq “will have all of the forces that they need” next month.
He said the timing of the offensive would be up to Mr Al Abadi.
“It will be a political decision by prime minister Abadi as to when operations actually are conducted,” he said.
“But our job is to actually help the Iraqis generate the forces and the support necessary for operations in Mosul and we’ll be ready for that in October.”
Mosul has been the largest urban centre under the militants’ control, with a pre-war population of nearly 2 million. It was from Mosul’s Grand Mosque in 2014 that ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning regions of Iraq and Syria.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters
Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM