Iraqi Forces Retake Villages as ISIS Loses More Territory in Syria

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Iraqi security forces are seen during a military operation launched by the Iraqi army to retake positions held by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants near the village of Sharween, in Diyala province, Iraq on January 22 2015. Anadolu Agency/Stringer

Published Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Iraqi army and pro-government forces took control of about two dozen villages from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in the eastern province of Diyala near the border with Iran, security sources and local officials said on Monday.

Across the border in Syria, meanwhile, Syrian army and pro-government forces, including Kurdish forces, drove ISIS from key Syrian regions after months of heavy fighting.

The attack in Diyala, which began Friday, enabled the Iraqi army along with pro-government forces to push the militants out of the Muqdadiya area, the closest ISIS outpost to the Iranian border about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the east.

Large swathes of land in Iraq have become ISIS strongholds as the extremist group, which declared a "caliphate" in the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, drove Iraq's army — the recipient of $25 billion in US training and funding since the 2003 invasion — to collapse in June.

ISIS has killed thousands of citizens and soldiers in Iraq and Syria. It has also executed two Lebanese soldiers and five Westerners in recent months.

Iraqi federal forces, Kurdish troops, and pro-government forces are fighting against the jihadists in various parts of Iraq.

"We managed on January 25 and after three days' tough battle to defeat the terrorists in northern Muqdadiya and we cleansed all the villages of Daesh," said Hadi al-Amri, head of the Badr Brigades, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

He told a news conference broadcast on state television on Monday that at least 58 soldiers and pro-government fighters were killed and 247 wounded in the operation.

About 65 ISIS fighters were also killed, Sadiq al-Hussaini, chairman of the security panel of Diyala's provincial council, told Reuters, adding that other militants had fled but did not specify where.

Mountainous terrain could make it difficult to completely eliminate ISIS from the area.

Previous land seizures have often been followed by a counter-offensive and it was not clear how strong a hold the pro-government forces had on the area.

Contradictory reports of pro-government fighters attacking freed villages

Residents and security sources told Reuters that pro-government fighters destroyed several mosques and set fire to dozens of houses in the village of Shirween, even some belonging to other fighters who had participated in the offensive.

"After liberating some villages in northern Muqdadiya, a group of militias assaulted us and accused us of being ISIS members. After they restricted our movement, they began to blow up the large houses," Salam Abdullah al-Jobouri, a tribal fighter, told Reuters.

An army major, a local official and a tribal leader confirmed the reports. The major said security forces were unable to stop the militias.

"We know such actions should stop and could send a wrong message to the residents of other villages, but I'm afraid we do not have the power to stop it," he told Reuters.

The Interior Ministry spokesman denied government forces had intentionally destroyed residents' homes. He accused ISIS of planting bombs as they retreated in order to ambush the troops and undermine their reputation.

Some politicians and tribal chiefs from Iraq's eastern Diyala province accused pro-government forces on Monday of killing more than 70 unarmed civilians who had fled clashes with ISIS militants.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan denied the claims, saying ISIS was trying to undermine the reputation of Iraqi security forces.

A local official said it was too soon to draw conclusions and suggested ISIS could have been behind the deaths in the eastern village of Barwanah.

"Daesh terrorists might have killed those people because they refused to fight with them," said Amal Omran, a member of the Diyala provincial council.

Reuters was unable to independently verify these claims due to the security situation in the area.

Canadian troops clash with ISIS

The Iraqi army and pro-government fighters have accomplished successful advances in the past months against ISIS but still face major challenges in the battle against the jihadist group, which holds large areas of the country, including the key cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah.

The Pentagon claimed however that ISIS has lost only a tiny fraction of captured territory in Iraq, with only roughly one percent of ISIS-held territory changing hands since the US launched air raids in Iraq in August.

Many critics doubted the effectiveness of the US-led air campaign, which Washington claims aims to degrade ISIS' military capability.

US-led air raids in Iraq have been criticized for making a minimal impact on the ground, despite costing $8.3 million per day according to Pentagon estimates.

Among international forces training the Iraqi military, Canadian special forces have twice exchanged gunfire with ISIS fighters since the first confirmed ground battle in Iraq between Western troops and the jihadists earlier this month, a senior officer in Ottawa said.

"Two similar events have occurred over the last week and, in both cases, Canadian special operations forces, again acting in self-defense, effectively returned fire, neutralizing the threat," said Captain Paul Forget.

No Canadians were injured.

In an audio clip posted online on Monday, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said supporters should attack Westerners with whatever weapons they had, "whether an improvised explosive device, bullets, a knife, car bomb or a fist."

"We repeat a call to followers in Europe and the infidel West to target the crusaders in their own lands and wherever they are," he said, praising recent attacks in Paris, Ottawa and Sydney.

Kurds drive ISIS out of Kobane

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces drove ISIS from the Syrian town of Kobane and raised their flags on Monday, dealing the jihadists an important blow after months of heavy fighting.

The Kurdish advance in Kobane, on the frontier with Turkey, marked the culmination of a battle lasting more than four months in which nearly 1,800 people were killed.

Analysts say the loss of Kobane is both a symbolic and strategic blow for ISIS, which set its sights on the small town in a bid to cement its control over a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) had "expelled all Islamic State fighters from Kobane and have full control of the town," using another name for ISIS.

"The Kurds are pursuing some jihadists on the eastern outskirts of Kobane, but there is no more fighting inside now," said the Observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

US Central Command, which oversees US forces in the Middle East and the air war against ISIS, said Kurdish forces now had control of 90 percent of Kobane.

"US Central Command confirms that anti-ISIS forces now control approximately 90 percent" of Kobane, a statement said, adding that it congratulated the Kurdish fighters who "have fought aggressively with resilience and fortitude."

"While the fight against ISIS is far from over, ISIS's failure in Kobane has denied them one of their strategic objectives," the statement read.

Kurdish forces were carrying out "mopping-up operations" against remaining ISIS forces in the Maqtala district, on the town's eastern outskirts.

YPG spokesman Polat Jan also announced the news on Twitter, writing: "Congratulations to humanity, Kurdistan, and the people of Kobane on the liberation of Kobane."

Mustafa Ebdi, an activist from the town, said the "fighting has stopped."

YPG forces were "advancing carefully in Maqtala because of the threat of mines and car bombs," he added.

The US was cautious, however, declining to confirm an end to the battle.

The recapture raises the question of what ISIS will do next.

In the east of the country, the Syrian army and pro-government forces recaptured an area north of Deir Ezzor military air base from ISIS fighters, killing at least 19 of them, the Observatory said.

The airport is one of the last remaining government strongholds in eastern Syria and ISIS has been trying to capture it for weeks. Government forces have held on to the base and parts of the provincial capital.

The Syrian conflict has resulted in the death of at least 200,000 people and displaced almost half of the country's 23 million people from their homes.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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