Baghdad and officials from the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State announced Thursday government forces have liberated the northern Iraqi city of Hawija from Islamic State control, effectively ending the terror group’s reign in the country.
“I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today,” Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi said during a joint press conference with French President Emanuel Macron in Paris.
The liberation of the city, which lies 100 miles south of the Islamic State’s former Iraqi capital of Mosul, is “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world,” Mr. Abadi said.
The two-week campaign to liberate Hawija, which had been under Islamic State control for the past three years, was similar to the rapid fall of Tal Afar to American-backed Iraqi government forces and paramilitary troops in late August. In contrast, it took nine months for Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition forces to flush Islamic State fighters from Mosul in brutal urban combat. The city was eventually freed from Islamic State control in July.
Iraqi forces, however, do remain engaged in tough fighting with pockets of Islamic State resistance in and around various parts of Hawija and the surrounding areas, local reports claim.
The quick succession of victories against Islamic State — also known as ISIS — in Tal Afar and Hawija, the latter of which had been the group’s final major holding in Iraq, was a testament to the “battle hardened and professional force” fielded by Baghdad throughout the anti-Islamic State campaign, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq Col. Ryan Dillion said in a tweet Thursday.
“Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign,” Army Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the top American commander in Iraq, said in an official coalition statement.
“Today’s victory demonstrates … this coalition remains committed to supporting our partners in the tough fight ahead as we continue our mission to defeat ISIS,” the three-star general added.
But those quick victories have come at a tremendous cost to Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire, human rights groups claim. More than 12,500 civilians were displaced during the course of the operation, with a majority now residing in transit sites and camps in Salah Al-Din and Kirkuk governorates, officials from the Norwegian Refugee Council said Thursday.
“Although the government has now declared the offensive over, these civilians are still in immediate need of food, water, shelter, and protection and safety,” said Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) country director in Iraq, Heidi Diedrich.
Noting that no international human rights or aid groups have been allowed inside Hawija during the operation or since its recapture by Iraqi forces, “now is the time for the international community, together with Iraqi authorities, to ensure that these individuals are given the critical assistance needed to rebuild their lives,” she said in a statement issued Thursday.
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