BAGHDAD (AP) — The Islamic State group has stepped up attacks on the western Iraqi town of Haditha, where at least 45 Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal fighters have been killed in clashes over the past three days and another 30 wounded, according to Iraqi officials.
The attacks come after Iraqi forces aided by U.S.-led airstrikes drove IS militants out of the city center of Ramadi, the capital of the sprawling Anbar province west of Baghdad. Following that victory a week ago, U.S. officials said the extremist group has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.
Coalition officials briefing journalists on Wednesday described a multi-pronged attack on Haditha beginning early this week. IS suicide attackers driving cars loaded with explosives approached the town from three fronts, while other militants fired mortar rounds at the nearby al-Asad air base, home to some 450 foreign coalition forces, none of whom were wounded in the attack.
Khalid Salman, a provincial councilman from Haditha, and Shaalan al-Nimrawi, a local tribal sheikh, confirmed the casualty figures among the Iraqi forces.
Iraqi forces held onto Haditha and a nearby hydroelectric dam as IS overran much of Anbar province in the summer of 2014. The U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes near the dam to protect it in September of that year.
The coalition officials downplayed the recent attacks on Haditha, describing them as an attempt to distract attention from the recent loss of Ramadi.
IS militants "don't have the ability to hold terrain," said U.S. Army Maj. Michael Filanowski, adding that the extremist group had suffered heavy casualties as it lost territory.
"Those attacks were limited in nature -- what we call harassing attacks," said Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based coalition spokesman, adding that Iraqi government forces were able to "either push the attackers back immediately or regroup and counterattack with the support of coalition airstrikes."
Despite the recent losses, IS still holds much of northern and western Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second largest city. It also controls Fallujah, a town near Ramadi where U.S. troops fought some of their bloodiest battles in the years after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
In an address marking Iraq's national armed forces day on Wednesday, Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi said troops should ready themselves for the next major battles.
"The coming days will witness big and pitched battles to liberate what remains of our territories," he said.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.