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Iraq forces retake ISIS bastion of al-Hawija

By AFP

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Iraqi forces advance towards the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' stronghold of al-Hawija on October 4th, a day before they succeeded in retaking the town. [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Iraqi forces retook the Kirkuk province city of al-Hawija from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) on Thursday (October 5th), after a two-week offensive.

The city is one of the last two ISIS enclaves in Iraq.

"I announce the liberation of the city of al-Hawija," Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi announced during a news conference in Paris. "All that remains is the strip on the border with Syria."

The operation's commander, Lt. Gen. Abdel Amir Rashid Yarallah, had earlier announced the recapture of the city centre.

Al-Hawijah, 230 kilometres north of Baghdad, was at the centre of a pocket of towns that were among the final holdouts from the territory seized by ISIS in 2014.

Iraqi forces bypassed it in their advance north to Mosul last year, which culminated in the group’s defeat in the Ninawa province city in July.

'Victory for whole world'

Al-Hawija lies between the two main routes north from Baghdad -- to Mosul and to the city of Kirkuk and the Kurdish region -- and its recapture is both a symbolic and a strategic victory for the government.

"This is a victory not only for Iraqis but also for the whole world," al-Abbadi said, speaking after talks in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.

France is part of the international coalition that has been backing the campaign against ISIS.

There was no immediate word on the fate of civilians in al-Hawija.

The UN said this week that an estimated 12,500 people had fled since the launch of the offensive to retake the town and surrounding areas last month.

The UN's humanitarian affairs office said there could be as many as 78,000 people in al-Hawija. It said humanitarian agencies have set up checkpoints, camps and emergency sites capable of receiving more than 70,000.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said many of those arriving in the camps had little more than the clothes on their backs.

"In addition to the terror they have experienced during years under the control of ISIS, many of the families who are arriving are malnourished," said NRC acting area manager Silvia Beccacece.

Dwindling 'caliphate'

Coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon hailed the latest advance on social media, saying Iraqi forces were continuing "to crush ISIS in al-Hawija pocket".

Al-Abbadi’s pledge to "liberate all Iraqi territory and to cleanse it from terrorists" was "close" to being fulfilled, he added.

ISIS has been forced out of most of the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria during the summer of 2014.

Last week, it was ousted from Anah, one of three towns it still held in the Euphrates Valley, and Iraqi forces are preparing to advance upstream towards the other two, Rawa and al-Qaim.

Provincial civil defence chief General Fawzi Yassin said it had taken until Thursday to clear nearly 1,000 mines and booby-traps that the group had planted in and around Anah.

"This clearance operation is going to allow the displaced to return to their homes," town council chief Abdel Karim al-Ani said.

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