Iraqi Prime Minister Announces Operation to Retake Shirqat

Iraqi soldiers fire a rocket toward IS militants on the outskirts of the Makhmour south of Mosul, Iraq, on March 25, 2016. (File Photo)Iraqi soldiers fire a rocket toward IS militants on the outskirts of the Makhmour south of Mosul, Iraq, on March 25, 2016. (File Photo)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Tuesday the launch of a military operation to retake Shirqat, a bastion of the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group 100 km south of the militants’ Mosul stronghold.

The northern town on the banks of Tigris River, which Iraqi troops and allied Shia Muslim militias have surrounded, is thought to contain tens of thousands of civilians, Reuters reported.

Officials have warned for months of a humanitarian disaster inside where residents living under IS’s harsh rule say food supplies have dwindled and prices soared.

Abadi said in a televised message from New York, where he is attending the United Nations General Assembly, that Iraqi forces would also move to retake two areas in western Anbar province.

“These operations pave the way for cleansing every inch of Iraqi land and, God willing, its end will be the liberation of Mosul city ... the liberation of all Iraqi lands and the end of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Abadi has pledged repeatedly to retake Mosul by the end of the year and Iraqi commanders have indicated that could begin as soon as the second half of October.

After meeting with Abadi in New York on Monday, US President Barack Obama said he hoped for progress by the end of the year on Mosul.

The city, Iraq’s second largest, fell to IS in 2014 after Iraq’s Army and police dropped their weapons and fled, despite billions of dollars in aid since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

It was not immediately clear what role the militias, which have been accused of rights abuses in previous battles, would play in Shirqat.

The militias, which deny those allegations or describe them as isolated incidents, were critical in rolling back IS in the immediate aftermath of its surge through northern and western Iraq toward Baghdad two years ago.

Hawija, east of Shirqat, is the other remaining IS bastion south of Mosul. The group also controls the city of Tel Afar, west of Mosul towards the Syrian border.