BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Sunni province of Anbar is key to launching the long-awaited operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group, the country's defense minister said Wednesday.
Khalid al-Obeidi's remarks reflected the challenges Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, face as they try to claw back territory captured by IS militants. They also indicate the operation to take back Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, may come later than expected.
At the moment, Iranian-backed Iraqi soldiers and allied Shiite militias are fighting to retake Islamic State-held city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown — an offensive that is taking place without U.S. airstrikes.
Al-Obeidi told reporters Wednesday that before Iraqi forces can undertake the battle for Mosul, they must "secure" Anbar so that it cannot serve as staging ground for militant counterattacks.
Anbar, west of Baghdad, was the first province to fall under Islamic State's control during the group's blitz last year. The province shares a long border which Syria, which has enabled the militants to move fighters and weapons between the two countries virtually unpoliced.
"We must secure Anbar and we are now focused on securing Anbar," al-Obeidi said. He singled out the town of Hit, in Anbar, saying it is an obvious place from where IS can strike back.
Tikrit is viewed by Iraqi forces as key to opening a strategic corridor that leads to Mosul from one direction. U.S. officials had said that there would likely be a spring offensive to reclaim Mosul, but Iraqi officials have backed away from setting a timeline.
Also Wednesday, a leading international rights group accused Iraq's Shiite militias fighting alongside government forces of carrying out the of "deliberate destruction of civilian property" after the town of Amirli, northeast of Baghdad, and the surrounding area was recaptured from IS last year.
Human Rights Watch, in a report focusing on the Shiite militias' role in freeing Amirli, cited evidence of militiamen looting the property of Sunni civilians who had fled the fighting, burning their homes and businesses, and destroying at least two villages.
"Iraq clearly faces serious threats in its conflict with ISIS, but the abuses committed by forces fighting ISIS are so rampant and egregious that they are threatening Iraq long-term," said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
"Iraqis are caught between the horrors ISIS commits and abusive behavior by militias, and ordinary Iraqis are paying the price," Stork added, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
In Baghdad, the spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office said the government has "zero tolerance for any human rights violations."
In response to the report by the New York-based watchdog, Rafid Jabouri said that "if anything needs to be investigated, it will be."