Middle East

IS conflict: Iraqi forces launch offensive near Syria border

A member of Iraqi pro-government forces stands guard in the city of Falluja, Anbar province, 29 December 2016 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iraqi pro-government forces retook the city of Falluja, in eastern Anbar province, last year

The Iraqi military says it has launched a new offensive aimed at re-capturing western towns near the Syrian border from the jihadist group Islamic State.

The operation will involve army and federal police units, along with tribal fighters.

Their main targets are the towns of Aanah, Rawa and al-Qaim, which lie along the River Euphrates.

Last year, government forces drove IS out of much of Anbar province, retaking the major cities of Ramadi and Falluja.

But large parts of the vast desert region remain under jihadist control.

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The first target of the offensive is the town of Aanah, about 240km (150 miles) north-west of Baghdad.

"Our forces started advancing from Haditha towards Aanah from several directions," Lt Gen Qassem Mohammedi, head of the military's Jazeera Operations Command, told AFP news agency on Thursday.

Troops then aim to advance westwards along the Euphrates towards Rawa and then al-Qaim, which is 330km from Baghdad and next to a key crossing on the border with Syria.

The offensive comes as government forces continue to battle IS militants for control of the northern city of Mosul.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi government forces are reported to have recaptured two-thirds of eastern Mosul

On Wednesday, a senior Iraqi commander said 65-70% of eastern Mosul had been recaptured and that troops expected to reach the banks of the River Tigris in the city centre within days.

Lt Gen Talib Shaghati, head of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, told Reuters news agency that IS had carried out hundreds of suicide car bomb attacks since the assault began 11 weeks ago in an attempt to hold on to its last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

A spokesman for the US-led multinational coalition supporting the offensive said troops had made significant progress since launching a new phase on 29 December, when they began synchronising attacks on three axes and the number of coalition military advisers was doubled to about 450.

"What we're finding is that the synchronized attacks present the enemy with more problems than they can solve, and the Iraqi security forces are making progress with the continued benefit of coalition strikes and advisers," Col John Dorrian told reporters on Wednesday.

However, the presence inside the city of hundreds of thousands of civilians continues to slow progress.

"There are more than 200,000 buildings in Mosul. And really, in order to do this properly, given the way that the enemy has conducted themselves, you end up having to clear each one," Col Dorrian said.