Fierce clashes in Iraq as IS seizes vil­lages

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY SI­NAN SALA­HED­DIN

The I slamic State group launched an of­fen­sive in Iraq’s west­ern An­bar prov­ince on Wed­nes­day, cap­tur­ing three vil­lages near the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Ra­madi and forc­ing vil­lagers to flee from their homes as fierce clashes were un­der­way be­tween the ex­trem­ists and gov­ern­ment troops, res­i­dents said.

The mil­i­tants’ push comes af­ter the Is­lamic State was dealt a ma­jor blow ear­lier this month, when Iraqi troops routed the group from Tikrit, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s home­town. Wed­nes­day’s fight­ing could also fur­ther threaten Ra­madi, 115 kilo­me­ters ( 70 miles) west of Bagh­dad. The city is mostly held by gov­ern­ment forces but mil­i­tants con­trol some parts of it, mainly on the out­skirts.

In a dawn ad­vance, IS ex­trem­ists seized the vil­lages of Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya, which had also been un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol till now, the res­i­dents said. Fight­ing was also tak­ing place on the eastern edges of Ra­madi, about two kilo­me­ters (1 mile) away from lo­cal gov­ern­ment build­ing, they added.

In Soufiya, the mil­i­tants bombed a po­lice sta­tion and took over a power plant. The res­i­dents, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity fear­ing for their own safety, said airstrikes were try­ing to back up Iraqi troops. Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials could not im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment.

Around noon Wed­nes­day, the mil­i­tants opened an­other front with the gov­ern­ment troops on three other vil­lages, to the north­east of Ra­madi, the res­i­dents also said.

An Iraqi in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said the mil­i­tants were pre­par­ing to launch an­other of­fen­sive from the west­ern side of the city, de­scrib­ing the sit­u­a­tion as “crit­i­cal.”

The IS was also try­ing to take con­trol of the main high­way that goes through Ra­madi, to cut off sup­plies, the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to talk to the me­dia.

De­fense Min­istry spokesman, Brig. Tah­seen Ibrahim, ac­knowl­edged on Wed­nes­day that Is­lamic State mil­i­tants “gained a foothold in some ar­eas” in An­bar. But he said re­in­force­ments were dis­patched to the prov­ince and that U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes were sup­port­ing the Iraqi forces.

“The sit­u­a­tion is un­der con­trol and the stand­off will be re­solved in the com­ing hours,” Ib­harim told The As­so­ci­ated Press. He added, how­ever, that most of the vil­lagers in the area had fled from their homes amid the fight­ing but gave no de­tails.

Hun­dreds of U.S. and coali­tion forces have been train­ing Iraqi troops at An­bar’s Ain Al-Asad air base, about 110 kilo­me­ters (68 miles) west of Ra­madi, which came un­der an IS attack in mid-Fe­bru­ary. The attack, which in­volved a sui­cide bomber, was re­pelled. In a state­ment late Tues­day, the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand said the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion car­ried out 18 airstrikes on mil­i­tants in Iraq and Syria in the past two days. Of those, 15 were in Iraq, in­clud­ing three near Ra­madi that de­stroyed tac­ti­cal units, fight­ing po­si­tions, ve­hi­cles and mor­tar sys­tem, it said.

The An­bar fight­ing co­in­cides with Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al- Abadi’s visit to Wash­ing­ton where he met with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Tues­day and ap­pealed for greater sup­port from the U.S.-led coali­tion car­ry­ing out airstrikes against IS mil­i­tants, who have also cap­tured large ar­eas in neigh­bor­ing Syria.

Also, a spate of mil­i­tant attack in and out­side Bagh­dad killed at least 43 peo­ple over the past two days.

Mean­while, Iraqi state TV cited Lt. Gen. Ab­dul-Wa­hab al-Saadi, the re­gional com­man­der of troops in Salahud­din prov­ince as say­ing that troops started a large-scale op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture ar­eas be­yond Tikrit. The TV did not pro­vide more de­tails.

Last year’s blitz by the Is­lamic State, which swept through key ar­eas in the north and west to seize about a third of Iraq, has pushed the coun­try into its worst cri­sis since the 2011 with­drawal of U.S. troops.

AP

Peo­ple leave their home­town of Ra­madi, 70 miles (115 kilo­me­ters) west of Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day, April 15.

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