ISIL near de­feat amid fears of civil war

Ottawa Citizen - - POLITICS - LEE BERTHIAUME

OTTAWA • Coali­tion forces in Iraq are re­port­ing faster-than-ex­pected progress against the so-called Is­lamic State, though that suc­cess has been marred by fears that a new civil war is brew­ing in the coun­try.

The Iraqi mil­i­tary de­clared Tues­day that it had re­gained con­trol of the town Haw­ija and the sur­round­ing area af­ter three weeks of fight­ing, elim­i­nat­ing ISIL’s last ma­jor strong­hold in Iraq.

That leaves a small pocket near the Syr­ian bor­der as the last area still un­der the group’s con­trol.

A se­nior coali­tion of­fi­cer said the bat­tle for Haw­ija, which in­cluded as­sis­tance from Cana­dian spe­cial forces, was much eas­ier than com­man­ders ex­pected.

“We thought they were go­ing to fight to re­tain that a lot more ag­gres­sively,” said Brig.-Gen. Craig Aitchi­son, who is Cana­dian but help­ing over­see all coali­tion ground forces. “As we saw, they didn’t.”

Some ex­trem­ists es­caped into the desert, but many sur­ren­dered en masse af­ter a to­ken re­sis­tance — which Aitchi­son said has been the trend since the piv­otal bat­tle for Mo­sul ended in June.

“The gen­eral as­sess­ment is the back of the phys­i­cal caliphate has been bro­ken, the lead­er­ship has aban­doned the lo­cal fighters,” he said. “They’ve been de­mor­al­ized.”

Yet the good news is be­ing over­shad­owed by the war of words be­tween Bagh­dad and the re­gional gov­ern­ment in Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan re­gion over the lat­ter’s in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum last month.

Bagh­dad op­posed the ref­er­en­dum, and has since banned in­ter­na­tional flights into the Kur­dish re­gion and threat­ened to fight the Kurds for con­trol of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other dis­puted land.

The Kurds briefly closed the main road from north­ern Iraq to Bagh­dad on Tues­day fol­low­ing re­ports of a po­ten­tial at­tack by Iraqi and Shi­ite mili­tia forces and the pos­si­bil­ity of a civil war looms large.

Aitchi­son played down the sit­u­a­tion as “mostly rhetoric,” but ac­knowl­edged the coali­tion is mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion to en­sure there is no im­pact on the fight against ISIL.

The gen­eral was re­luc­tant to dwell on what the coali­tion would do if fight­ing be­tween Iraqis and Kurds did break out, ex­cept to say: "I think it would be safe to say that we wouldn’t take sides.”

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi on Tues­day raised the pos­si­bil­ity of ask­ing coali­tion forces to leave the Kur­dis­tan re­gion — or Iraq al­to­gether, which Aitchi­son said was within Bagh­dad’s rights.

“We’re here at the in­vi­ta­tion of the gov­ern­ment of Iraq,” he said, “and so if they de­cide that they’re go­ing to ask us to op­er­ate or not op­er­ate in cer­tain ar­eas, that’s their purview.”

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has re­fused to weigh in on the ref­er­en­dum, even as oth­ers, such as the U.S., Iran, Turkey and even the UN, have come out against it.

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