Iraqi forces resume assault on ISIS-held town of Hawija

'Right now, the Iraqi government’s attitude seems to be ‘all hands on deck’ for these last battles against ISIS,' HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson.

Second phase. Iraqi forces flash the victory sign as they advance to recapture the ISIS stronghold of Hawija, on September 23. (AFP)

2017/10/01 Issue: 125 Page: 4

London- Iraqi forces resumed their as­sault on the northern town of Hawija, one of the last bastions held by the Islamic State (ISIS). The operation came after ISIS released what it said was an audio recording of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urging resistance, the first such release in nearly a year.

“The leaders of the Islamic State and its soldiers have realised that the path to… victory is to be patient and resist the infidels whatever their alliances,” said the voice in the recording, whose authenticity Washington said it had “no reason to doubt.”

Rumours have abounded about Baghdadi’s health and movements but his whereabouts have largely re­mained unclear.

Since Baghdadi’s message to his followers last November, the terri­tory the militants hold in the cross-border caliphate he proclaimed in 2014 has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was.

“A huge military operation has begun to liberate Hawija and its surrounding areas,” the operation’s commander, Lieutenant-General Abdel Amir Yarallah, said in a state­ment.

Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake the ISIS enclave around Hawija on September 21, swiftly tak­ing the town of Sharqat on its sec­ond day before pushing on towards Hawija itself.

Yarallah said the operation in­volved the army, the federal police, counterterrorism units and the Rap­id Intervention Force, as well as trib­al volunteers and the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), mainly made up of Iran-trained Shia militia.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Ab­adi hailed the second phase of the operation to recapture the area.

“As we promised the sons of our country, we are going to liberate every inch of Iraqi land and crush the [ISIS] terrorist gangs,” Abadi said. “We are on the verge of a new victory to liberate the residents of these areas from those criminals.”

The Hawija enclave is one of two areas of Iraq still held by ISIS, along with a stretch of the Euphrates Val­ley near the Syrian border that is also under attack.

Human Rights Watch condemned alleged abuses by paramilitary units fighting alongside Iraqi security forces to expel ISIS from Hawija.

“Right now, the Iraqi govern­ment’s attitude seems to be ‘all hands on deck’ for these last battles against ISIS,” said HRW’s Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “While Iraqi forces do need all the help they can get, the government should not allow abusive forces to use this opportunity for even more abuse.”

Despite pledges to the contrary, Abadi was allowing the PMF “to play a more prominent role not only in the fighting but also in screening and detaining people during mili­tary operations,” the rights watch­dog said.

“Iraqi military forces are taking the law into their own hands, play­ing judge, jury and executioner with captive ISIS suspects,” Whitson said.

HRW said it had documented cas­es of screening and torture of sus­pects from interviews with villagers displaced by the latest fighting to retake the northern city of Hawija.

Families had given accounts of how PMF units had detained and beaten male villagers and taken away four men from Sayhat Oth­man, 42km north-west of Hawija, who had not been seen again, spark­ing rumours they had been killed.

One of the men who had surren­dered to Iraqi forces was an amputee in a wheelchair who had worked in the local mosque under ISIS “and co­operated with the group while they were in control of the area,” HRW quoted family members as saying.

In Mosul, Iraqi forces discovered a mass grave west of the city contain­ing dozens of bodies of ISIS fighters probably killed in an air strike, offi­cials said.

“It’s the first mass grave of this kind to have been discovered” near Tal Afar, 70km west of Mosul, local official Abdelaal Abbas told Agence France-Presse.

Iraqi forces retook Mosul from ISIS in July and Tal Afar in late Au­gust, three years after the militants overran the northern Iraqi cities.

“ISIS would throw the bodies of its fighters… in a deep pit 7 kilome­tres north of Tal Afar,” Abbas said.

A security official in the wider Nineveh province, Mohammed Ibrahim al-Bayati, said “around 40 bodies belonging to ISIS” were found in the pit.

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