IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq drove the Islamic State group from more than 140 sq. kilometers (54 sq. miles) of territory near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and cleared part of a major highway on Wednesday.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pushed the militants beyond Ghara Heights and Mount Batiwa, south of Kirkuk, and secured a stretch of a highway which connects Kirkuk to the central city of Samarra, a statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council said.
The villages of Meziriya, Gubebe, Seda, Mohammed Khalil, Qows Kurd, Tal Ward, Khalef and Mansouria — all south of Kirkuk — were purged of militants, the statement said.
At least 10 peshmerga fighters died in the operation and another 16 were wounded, according to a senior security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists. The Kurdish government said some militants were seen fleeing toward the contested town of Hawijah.
The IS group swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 and currently holds roughly a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Kurdish fighters made significant advances against the militant group early this year, but their progress has stalled around areas the extremists view as strategic — particularly near the border.
The militant group has launched numerous attacks on Kirkuk in its bid to expand access to oil resources, but peshmerga fighters have managed to defend the city.
A statement from the U.S.-led coalition Wednesday noted three airstrikes near Kirkuk over the previous day, which it said had destroyed a tactical unit, 10 rocket rails, a weapons cache, five militant vehicles and a car bomb. Another eight airstrikes were conducted in the area around Hawijah over the same period, the statement said.
Associated Press writers Imad Matti in Kirkuk, Iraq, and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.