IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — In a push at dawn, Iraqi forces launched an operation on Thursday to retake the town of Hawija — one of the last extremist strongholds in Iraq — from the Islamic State group, according to a statement from the Iraqi prime minister's office.
The operation began just two days after Iraqi forces began an offensive against IS holdouts in Iraq's vast western Anbar province, said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Hawija, 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of the last pockets of territory held by the extremist group in the country. IS has been steadily losing ground and seeing its sprawling caliphate that in 2014 spanned a third of the territory of Iraq and also neighboring Syria crumbling fast.
Earlier this month, Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition planes stepped up a campaign of airstrikes on Hawija, targeting IS bases and weapons facilities.
The Islamic State group "now faces the mighty (Iraqi security forces in) the last two areas where they hold any territory in Iraq," U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said Thursday morning in a statement posted on Twitter.
In the western Anbar province, Iraqi forces retook the town of Rihana on Wednesday, according to a statement from the coalition. The territory IS holds in the western province lies mainly along the border with Syria in the Euphrates River valley.
Iraqi forces declared victory over the extremists in Mosul in July and in the western town of Tal Afar the following month.
Plans to retake Hawija have been complicated by political wrangling among the Iraqi security forces, Shiite armed groups and the Kurdish Peshmerga troops. The town is part of the Kirkuk governorate, which is disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, where a referendum on independence is scheduled to take place next week.
Tensions have risen in the area recently as Kurdish leaders are pressing ahead with the referendum, a move dismissed by the central government as illegal and destabilizing to the country.
Iraq armed forces spokesman Gen. Yahyah Rasul said that Kurdish peshmerga forces will remain involved in the battle to clear IS militants from the area, despite recent tensions over Kirkuk.
He estimated that between 800 and 1,500 IS extremists remained holed up inside Hawija.
Dillon, the coalition spokesman, said the Kurdish referendum had pulled "resources and focus" away from the fight against IS. He also predicted that after swift Iraqi victories in western Anbar, the battle for Hawija will be "hard fighting."
The coalition airstrikes, in coordination with Iraq forces, have hit 29 IS targets already in Hawija and 34 in western Anbar, Dillon said.
"We will annihilate Daesh and prevent their return," he added, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah, deputy commander of the joint operations, told The Associated Press that along with the push to liberate Hawija, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias are also fighting to liberate the villages near the town of Sherqat, on the east side of the Tigris River.
Lt. Gen. Raid Shawkat Jawdat, commander of the Iraqi Federal Police that is also taking part in the operation, said dozens of their armored vehicles started the push at dawn Thursday.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samuel McNeil in Baghdad contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Iraqi Lt. Gen Yarallah said the operation involved the villages around the town of Sherqat, not the town, which is already in Iraqi hands.