Iraq’s prime minister said yesterday that troops had retaken the northern town of Hawija from Isil, driving the extremists from one of their last strongholds in the country.
Haider al-Abadi declared victory during a press conference in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, who offered to help mediate between Iraq’s government and the autonomous Kurdish region, which voted for independence last week in a move that was rejected by Baghdad and neighbouring Turkey and Iran.
“I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today,” Mr al-Abadi said, calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world”.
Iraqi forces have driven Isil from nearly all the cities and towns it seized in the summer of 2014, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, which was liberated in July. The extremists are now mainly concentrated in a region straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, and still control a cluster of towns in the far west of Iraq’s sprawling Anbar province, where another US-backed Iraqi offensive is underway.
Iraqi officials often declare victory before the fighting has completely ended, and the troops in and around Hawija were likely to still be clearing mines and booby traps, and flushing out remaining militants. Iraqi forces had launched the operation to retake the town, which lies 240km north of Baghdad, late last month.
The US-led coalition issued a statement welcoming Iraq’s “swift and decisive victory” in Hawija.
“Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign,” said Lt Gen Paul Funk II, commander of the coalition in Iraq.
Even as it drives the extremists from their last remaining pockets of territory, Iraq faces a new challenge in the form of a growing Kurdish push for independence. More than 90pc of Kurds voted in favour of independence in a referendum last month that was rejected as illegal by the Baghdad government as well as Iraq’s neighbours.
Iraq has responded to the vote by imposing a flight ban on the northern region, while Turkey and Iran have sent troops to the land-locked region’s borders to signal their opposition to any redrawing of the map.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday appeared to threaten a blockade of the Kurdish region, saying “all airspace will be closed, flights have already been banned… Soon the borders will be closed too”. Mr Macron said France and others were concerned about the escalating dispute. He said France supports the territorial integrity of Iraq and called for “national reconciliation and inclusive governance”.