Iraqi forces have guided Islamic State fighters from the northern city of Hawija, the militants’ final urban stronghold in Iraq, 3 years after they captured control of nearly a third of the nation, the Iraqi government said Thursday.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a televised presence in Paris, where he is on a state visit, that Hawija had been “liberated,” calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world.”
The United States-led coalition settled the fall of Hawija, calling it “a quick and crucial victory” by the Iraqi forces.
Although fighting continues in surrounding districts, the loss of Hawija adds to a series of crumbling blows for the militants in Iraq, who are left in control of only a cord of desert outposts in the Euphrates River valley and the city of Qaim, on the border with Syria.
The victory is also likely to support the confidence of Iraqi armies, who dropped their weapons and departed by the thousands when the militants swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. Iraqi forces are now fighting the militants along the Euphrates in the northern component of Anbar Province, where they have already taken several towns, according to the United States military statement
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, still holds significant territory across the border in Syria, mainly along the Euphrates, but its grasp there has been badly crippled by American-trained forces in recent weeks. The coalition has taken most of the Syrian city of Raqqa, which had been the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, and the Syrian government is hitting other positions closer to the Iraqi border.
Self-confidence among militants in the Hawija area arrives to be deteriorating quickly. At least 600 men pinpointed by Kurdish forces as Islamic State fighters have surrendered to the Kurds in Dibis, in Kirkuk Province. An increased 400 to 500 are being interrogated on notion of being militants. Together, they represent a significant portion of the predicted 2,000 to 3,000 Islamic State fighters who were in the Hawija area before Iraq started military operations there on Sept. 21.
As in other battles over the past 3 years, Iraqi forces have been backed in Hawija by American military advisers, forward air controllers, appropriate operations troops, airstrikes and artillery.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the representative for the United States-led coalition in Baghdad, said Thursday that the United States had handled 16 airstrikes in the past week in support of the Hawija operation. The speed of what seems to have been a two-week Iraqi military stretch through Hawija recommends that the militants are no longer capable to sustain active military operations for long periods.
The battle to run them from Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, lasted nine months before it was liberated in July. But the next city to fall from the Islamic State, Tal Afar in late August, took only 11 days.
Iraqi commanders said in telephone interviews from the front on Thursday that militants departing Hawija had moved north toward the Kurdish-held district of Dibis. They said the advance of Iraq troops had been slowed by roadside bombs implanted by militants.
The route taken by the Islamic State fighters to Dibis would margin them to opposing lines held by Kurdish troops known as pesh merga. Militants who surrendered to pesh merga fighters since Sunday appeared to be trying to averting capture by Shiite Muslim militiamen, who have been accused in earlier battles of executing militants as well as civilians considered to be supporting them. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been fighting alongside the Iraqi regulars.
Kurdish intelligence officials in Dibis said they had heard repeated accounts from departing Islamic State fighters that the group’s leaders in Hawija had ordered their men to drop their weapons and depart with their families to the security of Kurdish lines.
About 7,000 family members have attended the 1,000 fighters identified since Sept. 21, they said. “I think in the arriving days we’ll even look their emirs come over,” said Lt. Pishtiwan Salahi, an investigator with the Kurdish intelligence service, Asayish.
Capt. Ali Muhammad Syan, who is in charge of shielding the coming Islamic State fighters in Dibis, said he had been surrounded by senior militant leaders trying to agree deals for themselves.
“We tell them no way, no arranges, turn yourselves in and we’ll turn you over to the court, which will decide,” he said.
“It’s really a huge question for me, though,” he said. “Hawija held the toughest ISIS fighters and I never considered they would surrender in this way. It’s absolutely weird.”
American officials have worried that the new vote in the Kurdish region of Iraq to go after independence would blunt the military coalition. Pesh merga fighters have fought alongside Iraqi government units and the mostly Shiite militias known as Hashed al-Shaabi, or famous mobilization forces, in battles against the militants the past three years.
The Kurdish independence vote has led to a bitter standoff between the Kurds and the Baghdad government, complete with Iraqi threats of military and economic retaliation. Turkey and Iran have also threatened retaliation, and both nations have attended military maneuvers with Iraqi troops.
Mr. Abadi has made a point of saying that pesh merga forces were not involved in the Hawija operation beyond maintaining defensive blocking positions. In a televised speech on Tuesday, Mr. Abadi accused pesh merga commanders of being too slow to respond to queries or requests from Iraqi military commanders.
The goal of the Iraqi operation was to eject militants not just from the city of Hawija, with a population of about 100,000, but from the whole surrounding district, home to about 150,000.
According to United Nations estimates, up to 78,000 civilians remain in Hawija. There have been reports that some have been killed by militants and others closed from escaping the city. Many civilians may also be too terrified by gunfire, shelling and roadside bombs to try to depart their homes.
More than 7,000 civilians escaped the city during the first 10 days of the operation, the United Nations said. Several thousand more reached Kirkuk by Sunday. An official from the Iraqi Immigration Ministry said on Thursday that more than 9,000 civilians had been taken to camps run by humanitarian groups.
Iraqi commanders in Hawija said on Thursday that the militants had blown up several government buildings, shops and homes in the Hawija city center. They said Iraqi forces were trying to reopen roads and to clear roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings.
The commanders added that Iraqi soldiers had taken control of a bridge in the city where, in September 2015, Islamic State fighters had shot and beheaded several caught pesh merga, Iraqi Army soldiers and Shiite militia fighters.