BAGHDAD — Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary forces, Iraqi government troops on Thursday pushed Islamic State group militants from a key town north of the Iraqi capital, days after launching an operation to retake it, a military spokesman said.
Recapturing the town of Shirqat posed another blow to IS militants who since late last year have suffered major battlefield losses, shrinking the areas the extremists had controlled in western and northern Iraq since a mid-2014 blitz.
In a televised statement on state TV, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, declared the town “fully liberated” with its center under the control of Iraqi forces and the national flag hoisted over nearby government buildings, including the mayor’s office and the main hospital.
State TV interrupted its normal programs with a series of news alerts announcing the operation and broadcasting patriotic songs. Pictures published by the Defense Ministry showed soldiers hoisting the Iraqi flag over buildings, the corpses of alleged militants and jubilant residents waving at Iraqi forces.
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against IS, Col. John L. Dorrian, told The Associated Press that the coalition carried out “a very successful strike that eliminated a significant number of fighters who were trying to flee toward Hawija,” to the east of Shirqat, which is under IS control. Dorrian couldn’t give specific figures for the number of militants killed.
The head of the Salahuddin provincial council, Ahmed al-Karim, said that government forces control up to 80 percent of the city, with the militants pushed to rural areas across the Tigris River. Al-Karim added that the operation did not displace people, as residents stayed in their homes.
Shirqat, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, was among the first areas to fall into IS hands during the militants’ summer 2014 offensive. The government forces launched the Shirqat operation on Tuesday.
The town lies near the city of Mosul, which is the IS group’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Shirqat is important for Iraqi troops to secure the supply lines to forces stationed in nearby town of Qayara ahead of Mosul operation.
The city is home to the 3rd millennium ancient city of Ashur in Shirqat. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first capital for Assyrian Empire between 14th to 9th centuries BC. The militants claimed that they had destroyed some of its ruins, but they didn’t release a video as they did with other archaeological sites.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is located about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. While the Syrian city of Raqqa is considered the caliphate’s de facto capital, Mosul is the largest city under its control. The Iraqi government is now gearing up for a major offensive to retake Mosul from IS. It pledged to recapture the city this year.
Late last month, Iraqi forces retook the town of Qayara, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Mosul. A string of villages and towns south and southeast of Mosul have also been recaptured as part of an operation launched in March aimed at eventually unseating IS from the city.