Iraq launches operation to retake Anbar town

Iraqi security forces and allied fighters launch an operation to retake the town of Rutba from ISIL.

Iraqi government forces and local tribal fighters drive on the highway between the city of Ramadi and the town of Rutba as they take part in an operation to retake Rutba from ISIL on May 16, 2016. AFP / MOADH AL-DULAIMI
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Baghdad // Iraqi security forces and allied fighters launched an operation on Monday to retake the town of Rutba from ISIL.

Special forces, soldiers, police, border guards and pro-government paramilitaries are involved in the operation to retake the Anbar province town, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said.

Tanks and artillery are taking part in the operation, which is also backed by air support from Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition against ISIL, the statement said.

Rutba, located in western Anbar province along the main road to Jordan, has been held by the extremists since 2014.

“Rutba’s important to the enemy because it’s another support zone for them,” said Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US-led operation against ISIL.

ISIL uses it “to stage and prepare forces for operations in... the main battle area,” Col Warren said in Baghdad last week.

“It’s not heavily defended as is Fallujah or as was Ramadi,” he said, referring to the capital of Anbar, which has been retaken, and its second city, which ISIL still holds.

Col Warren said the number of ISIL fighters in Rutba varies from around 100 up to several hundred, and that once the Iraqis “decide they want to liberate Rutba, they’ll be able to.”

The United States and its allies conducted 14 strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, the coalition leading the operations said.

The Combined Joint Task Force said in Iraq eight strikes near five cities denied access to terrain, suppressed a mortar position and destroyed a bunker, an artillery piece and two vehicles, among other targets, the statement said.

Six strikes near four cities in Syria struck three tactical units and a financial headquarters and destroyed a vehicle, a rocket rail and four fighting positions.

ISIL overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, and later made further advances in Anbar, seizing Ramadi in 2015.

Iraqi forces have since regained significant ground from the extremists, securing the Ramadi area earlier this year and retaking the town of Heet last month.

But parts of Anbar – including Fallujah – are still under ISIL control, as is most of Nineveh province, to its north.

And the extremists are still able to carry out bombings in government-held areas – something they did more frequently prior to the June 2014 offensive.

As ISIL continues to lose ground, it has in recent weeks stepped up its campaign of bombings, including three in Baghdad last Wednesday that killed nearly 100 people.

On Sunday, the group attacked a natural gas plant in Taji about 20km north of Baghdad that killed at least 14 people.

The dawn attack on the gas plant began with a suicide car bombing at the facility’s main gate. Several suicide bombers and militants then broke into the plant and clashed with security forces.

Flames engulfed the facility and nearby palm trees before firefighters managed to control and extinguish the fire.

*Agence France-Presse and Reuters