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Iraqi military gears up for al-Hawija assault

By Khalid al-Taie

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In a photo posted on March 9th, al-Hawija tribesmen are seen taking part in a training session. Iraqi and tribal forces are now readying for an assault to liberate the city from the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'. [Photo via the Facebook page of al-Hawija tribal forces commander Sheikh Wasfi al-Asi]

Iraqi forces are preparing for a battle to drive the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) from its last urban stronghold in Iraq, a local official told Diyaruna.

The Iraqi government on Friday (September 1st) announced plans to launch an assault to retake the city of al-Hawija in Kirkuk province, AFP reported, a day after Iraqi forces succeeded in recapturing Tal Afar.

Iraqi forces have now forced ISIS out of all its Iraqi territories except al-Hawija and three pockets of territory in Anbar province near the border with Syria.

In the run up to the battle, the Iraqi air force has been dropping leaflets on al-Hawija, informing residents that an Iraqi victory is imminent and advising them to steer clear of groups of ISIS fighters, the Joint Operations Command said.

The leaflets offer ISIS fighters two choices: surrender or die.

The assault on al-Hawija will be carried out by joint combat units comprised of Iraqi troops and tribesmen, backed by coalition airpower.

"We expect a short-term battle," Kirkuk provincial council member Burhan al-Asi told Diyaruna on Tuesday (September 5th).

"It is true that ISIS controls an area of ​​about half the province of Kirkuk, with al-Hawija at its centre, but it is generally a rural area with villages that will be easy to liberate," he said. "The residents there, according to our sources, are eagerly waiting for the battle to liberate their areas."

Local residents are “afraid of any possible delay that would turn their joy into a new frustration", he said, noting that "they have in the past heard about an imminent attack, but it never materialised".

"With every passing day, the locals’ suffering increases," he said. "ISIS has been committing crimes against them for more than three years, and their abuses continue at an ever-increasing pace."

Measures to protect civilians

Al-Asi called for the military to create a sufficient number of safe passages to allow the besieged population to escape before the battle begins.

"There are many civilians, at least 100,000 in all likelihood," he said. "Every possible measure must be taken to protect them and prevent them from being used as human shields by the terrorists."

"Some of these people have been forced to remain in the city, and have suffered abuses at the hands of ISIS because they have farms, valuable agricultural machinery, and large fields for raising animals," he said.

"We hope that the combat activity will not affect the population’s life or property," he added.

As for the ISIS fighters, al-Asi said, "reports indicate that they are in a bad psychological state and are beaten as result of their many defeats".

"But they do not openly show this to the population," he added, and instead "pretend they are still strong enough to continue to terrorise them".

The liberation of al-Hawija would eliminate the biggest source of threat to neighbouring cities, most notably Kirkuk, Tikrit and Samarra, he added.

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