Iraq forces push into IS bastion of Hawija: commander

2 min

Hawijah (Iraq) (AFP)

Iraqi forces pushed into the Islamic State group bastion of Hawija on Wednesday, stepping up their assault against one the jihadists' last enclaves in the country, the operation's commander said.

"With God's help, the army, the federal police and the rapid response force began a major operation on Wednesday to liberate the centre of Hawija and the neighbouring town of Riyadh," Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah said in a statement.

Government forces and the Hashed al-Shaabi, an alliance mostly of Shiite militias, are fighting to retake the northern town after expelling IS from nearly all of the territory the jihadists seized in Iraq in 2014.

The operation involves the army, the federal police, elite units, as well as tribal volunteers and the Hashed al-Shaabi.

Federal police chief Raed Shakir Jawdat said in a statement that the latest "phase of the operation to liberate Hawija" had begun with artillery and missile fire on jihadist positions.

He said that elite federal police units had entered the city from the northwest.

"They are advancing and the goal is to take seven neighbourhoods of Hawija and 12 vital objectives," he said, without providing more details.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that an estimated 12,500 people had fled the town since the launch of the offensive last month.

The UN's humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) said the number of people still in the town was unknown but could be as high 78,000.

Hawija, about 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of just two areas of Iraq still held by IS, along with a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian border which is also under attack.