Iraqi Forces Push into 'Last Den' Of Isis in Country
Iraqi forces on Thursday thrust into the last area controlled by the Islamic State group in the country as they launched a push to wipe out remnants of the jihadists' self-styled caliphate.
The start of the keenly awaited offensive that the US-led coalition fighting ISIS has dubbed "the last big fight" of the campaign came even as Iraqi troops launched a new operation against the Kurds.
There had been fears the bitter dispute that has raged between the Baghdad government and Kurdish leaders since they held a referendum for independence last month would hamper the battle against the jihadists.
But federal troops and allied paramilitary units pressed ahead with a threatened drive up the Euphrates valley towards the Syrian border in a bid to retake two Sunni Arab towns renowned as hotbeds of insurgency ever since the US-led invasion of 2003.
Iraqi forces have retaken more than 90 percent of the territory ISIS seized in the country in 2014. The jihadists are now confined to a small stretch of the valley linked to territory in Syria where they are also battling to survive.
"The heroic legions are advancing into the last den of terrorism in Iraq to liberate Al-Qaim, Rawa and the surrounding villages and hamlets," Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said in a statement from neighboring Iran where he is on a state visit.
"They will all return to the arms of the motherland thanks to the determination and endurance of our fighting heroes," he added.
"The people of ISIS have no choice but to die or surrender."
Regional operations commander General Qassem al-Mohammedi told AFP that government forces were advancing on four fronts -- from the east, southeast, north and south.
He said that units of the federal police and the elite Counter-Terrorism Service as well as the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force were supporting the army.
Iraqi forces said that by early afternoon they had recaptured several military bases southeast of Al-Qaim, including an airbase that the fleeing jihadists had abandoned.