Iraq says it has retaken one of IS group's last strongholds
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday that Iraqi forces have driven the Islamic State group from one of the extremists' last strongholds in the country, the northern town of Hawija.
The victory came as Baghdad and Iraq's Kurdish region remain in a political deadlock following a controversial Kurdish independence referendum. But on the battlefield Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue to collaborate, squeezing the jihadis who once controlled nearly a third of the country.
Al-Abadi made the declaration at a news conference in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has offered to help mediate between Iraq's government and the autonomous Kurdish region, which voted for independence last week.
"I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today," al-Abadi said, calling it a "victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world."
Still, Abadi's government is struggling to contain the fallout from the independence vote, which, while not binding or expected to lead to the formation of a Kurdish state anytime soon, was rejected as illegal by the Baghdad government as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran.
Iraq's central government has imposed a flight ban on the Kurdish region, while Turkey and Iran have sent troops to the land-locked region's borders to signal their opposition to any redrawing of the map.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday appeared to threaten a blockade of the Kurdish region, saying: "All airspace will be closed, flights have already been banned. ... Soon the borders will be closed too."
Macron expressed concern about the escalating dispute. He said France supports the territorial integrity of Iraq and called for "national reconciliation and inclusive governance," noting France's close ties to the Kurds.
He said dialogue "is the only path" out of the crisis, and said France is ready "to contribute actively to mediation."
Despite the political wrangling, the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, and the Iraqi army have kept up coordination in the Hawija area as the last pockets of IS territory are retaken, U.S. coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press.
"As Iraqi security forces continue to push (IS) up against the Kurdish defensive line ... you're going to find Kurdish Peshmerga forces killing or capturing ISIS fighters that have been pushed out of Hawija city," he said, referring to the extremists by an alternate acronym.
Iraqi forces have driven IS from nearly all the cities and towns it seized in the summer of 2014, including the country's second-largest city, Mosul, which was liberated in July following a months-long offensive. Tal Afar, west of Mosul was retaken by Iraqi security forces in August; hundreds of IS fighters and their families handed themselves over to Kurdish security forces in the days after.
The extremists are now mainly concentrated in a region straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, and still control a cluster of towns in the far west of Iraq's sprawling Anbar province, where another U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive is underway.
Iraqi officials often declare victory before the fighting has completely ended, and Dillon said troops in and around Hawija were flushing out the remaining militants in the area. Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the town, which lies 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, late last month.
The U.S.-led coalition issued a statement welcoming Iraq's "swift and decisive victory" in Hawija.
"Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign," said Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the commander of the coalition in Iraq.
Still, the Kurdish referendum has been an unwelcome distraction for the Western powers focused on the war against IS, forcing military planners to divert resources for "contingencies" that could follow the unresolved dispute, said Dillon.
Macron's offer to mediate between the Iraqi government and the Kurds had reportedly run into resistance from the Iraqi government ahead of al-Abadi's visit because of the French president's insistence on Kurdish rights.
Al-Abadi said Thursday that Iraq "is for all Iraqis" and the constitution guarantees the rights of all its citizens.
"We are not looking for any confrontations, we don't want animosity," he said. "But the authority of the federal state should impose its will and no one should attack the federal authority."
The central government and the Kurds have long bickered over the sharing of oil wealth and the fate of disputed territories, many of which are now controlled by Kurdish forces but lie outside their autonomous region.
Iraq's parliament, which is dominated by Shiite Arabs, has called for harsh measures in response to the Sept. 25 referendum, including sending federal troops to retake the contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is held by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad. Al-Abadi has ruled out any military response to the Kurdish vote but has said Iraqi forces will respond to any violence.
Al-Abadi and Macron also discussed efforts to promote investment and reconstruction in Iraq, where entire neighborhoods in several cities have been reduced to rubble by the fight against IS, and where more than 3 million people have been displaced.
France confirmed a 30 million euro loan for Iraqi reconstruction, and appears eager to play a big economic role in Iraq's future. French oil company Total, long a player in the region, and other companies were to meet with Abadi's delegation in Paris later Thursday.