BAGHDAD, Iraq - Declaring yet another victory against the deadly terrorist group, the Islamic State militant group - Iraq said on Thursday that one of the terror group’s last stronghold was liberated.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi told reporters during his is it to Paris on Thursday that Iraqi troops have retaken the northern town of Hawija from ISIS, driving the extremists from one of their last strongholds in the country.
Calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world,” Al-Abadi said, “I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today.”
So far, Iraqi forces have driven ISIS from nearly all the cities and towns it seized in the summer of 2014.
The country’s second largest city, Mosul was liberated from the terrorist grip hold in July this year after a long operation led by coalition forces.
According to officials in Iraq, the extremists are now mainly concentrated in a region straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, and still control a cluster of towns in the far west of Iraq’s sprawling Anbar province.
However, international reports pointed out that Iraqi officials often declare victory before the fighting has completely ended.
Currently, the troops in and around Hawija are still believed to be clearing mines and booby traps, and flushing out remaining militants.
Late last month, Iraqi forces had launched the operation to retake the town, which lies 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Even as forces have been driving extremists out of their last remaining pockets of territory - Iraq is already facing a new challenge in the form of a growing Kurdish push for independence.
Last month, in a controversial independence referendum that was feared to create a deeper rift in the already troubled Middle East region, more than 90 percent of Kurds voted in favor of independence.
However, the referendum was rejected as illegal by the Baghdad government as well as Iraq’s neighbors, including Turkey.
Responding to the vote, Iraq imposed a flight ban on the northern region, while Turkey and Iran have sent troops to the land-locked region’s borders to signal their opposition to any redrawing of the map.
Al-Abadi said on Thursday that Iraq “is for all Iraqis” and said the constitution guarantees the rights of all its citizens.
He said, “We are not looking for any confrontations, we don’t want animosity. But the authority of the federal state should impose its will and no one should attack the federal authority.”
For years now, the central government and the Kurds have bickered over the sharing of oil wealth.
The fate of the disputed territories that are controlled by Kurdish forces are also a contentious issue even though they currently lie outside their autonomous region.
In response to the September 25 referendum, Iraq’s parliament, which is dominated by Shiite Arabs, has called for harsh measures.
They have insisted on sending federal troops to retake the contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, held by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad.
However, Al-Abadi has ruled out any military response to the Kurdish vote but has said Iraqi forces will respond to any violence.
Meanwhile, coalition officials have pointed out that so far, the Iraqi government and security forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has freed more than 4 million Iraqis and recaptured more than 41,5000 square kilometres of land once held by ISIS.