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Iraq announces recapture of northern town from IS group

AFP , Thursday 22 Sep 2016
Internally displaced Iraqis unload their furniture as the return to Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 (Photo: AP)
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Iraq announced Thursday that its forces have recaptured a northern town from the Islamic State group in an operation launched ahead of a push for the city of Mosul.

Security forces began the operation on Tuesday to oust the Islamic State group from Sharqat, a town near supply lines needed for the battle to retake second city Mosul from the jihadists.

Iraqi forces "completely liberated the Sharqat district and raised the Iraqi flag over the government headquarters" in the town, the country's Joint Operations Command said in a statement that hailed the speed of the operation.

Both Iraqi aircraft and the US-led coalition provided air support for the operation, the statement said.

The town lies on the west bank of the Tigris river in Salaheddin province, 260 kilometres (160 miles) northwest of Baghdad and around 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Mosul.

Iraqi forces bypassed Sharqat to retake a key military base to its north as well as the neighbouring town of Qayyarah, but then turned their attention to the continued IS presence behind their front lines.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes and training have since retaken significant ground including the cities of Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah.

Top US military officers have hinted that the final push for Mosul could begin next month, but there are still significant military, political and humanitarian obstacles between the launch of the operation and entering and retaking the city.

Once the push is launched, a coalition of heterogenous and sometimes rival Iraqi forces will have to fight through IS defences -- in some cases over distances of dozens of kilometres (miles) from their current positions -- to reach the city.

Then, if Iraqi strategy for Mosul follows that used in previous operations, they will seek to surround and seal off the city prior to an assault, which will involve street-by-street fighting against die-hard jihadists.

The Mosul operation also poses major humanitarian challenges, with the United Nations saying that up to one million people may be displaced by the fighting.

"Humanitarian agencies are racing against the clock to prepare for the humanitarian impact of the military campaign," the UN said.

While there has been much recent discussion about the launch of the drive on Mosul, operations to prepare for it began months ago.

Iraq announced in March that it had launched the offensive to retake the city, and the top US envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, has said several times that the Mosul operation was already under way.

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