Iraq Launches Offensive to Recapture Hawija
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday his forces have begun an offensive to retake control of the town of Hawija, one of the last areas in Iraq held by Islamic State militants.
Hawija is 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and just west of the oil city of Kirkuk.
Islamic State militants have been in control of Hawija since mid-2014 when the group swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 civilians have fled the area during the past three years, and that an estimated 85,000 who remain are "likely to be heavily affected" by the fighting in the coming weeks.
The U.N. humanitarian office said it is working with local authorities and aid groups in order to be ready to help an increasing number of people who flee.
Iraqi forces earlier this week launched a separate operation to go after the remaining Islamic State fighters in parts of western Anbar province. Those militants are mainly in the area along the border across from Islamic State territory in the Euphrates River valley that stretches up through Deir el-Zour and the group's de facto capital in Raqqa. Both Syrian cities are the sites of offensives to oust Islamic State as well.
Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said Islamic State "now faces the mighty (Iraqi Security Forces in) the last two areas where they hold any territory in Iraq."
Ahead of the offensive in Hawija, Dillon said the Iraqi Air Force dropped millions of leaflets urging Islamic State fighters to surrender.
For more than a week, coalition warplanes have carried out airstrikes in the Hawija area targeting Islamic State tunnels, vehicles, weapons, fighting positions and a bomb-making facility.