BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Tuesday the launching of a military operation to retake Shirqat, an Islamic State bastion 100 km (60 miles) south of the jihadists’ Mosul stronghold.
The northern town on the banks of the Tigris River, which Iraqi troops and allied Shi’ite Muslim militias have surrounded, is thought to contain tens of thousands of civilians.
Officials have warned for months of a humanitarian disaster inside where residents living under Islamic State’s harsh rule say food supplies have dwindled and prices soared.
Abadi said in a televised message from New York, where he is attending the United Nations General Assembly, that Iraqi forces would also move to retake two areas in western Anbar province.
“These operations pave the way for cleansing every inch of Iraqi land and God willing its end will be the liberation of Mosul city, … the liberation of all Iraqi lands and the end of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Abadi has pledged repeatedly to retake Mosul by the end of the year, and Iraqi commanders have indicated that could begin as soon as the second half of October.
After meeting with Abadi in New York on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped for progress by the end of the year on Mosul.
The city, Iraq’s second-largest, fell to Islamic State in 2014 after Iraq’s army and police dropped their weapons and fled, despite billions of dollars in aid since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It was not immediately clear what role the militias, which have been accused of rights abuses in previous battles, would play in Shirqat. The militias, which deny those allegations or describe them as isolated incidents, were critical in rolling back Islamic State in the immediate aftermath of its surge through northern and western Iraq towards Baghdad two years ago.
The disposition of forces and the treatment of Shirqat’s residents, who have been living under Islamic State for more than two years, will be closely watched by the Sunni residents of Mosul, who have historic mistrust of the forces of successive Shi’ite-led governments in Baghdad.
Hawija, east of Shirqat, is the other remaining Islamic State bastion south of Mosul. The group also controls the city of Tel Afar, west of Mosul towards the Syrian border.