Iraqi forces advance towards western town held by ISIL
BAGHDAD – Reuters
AFP photoIraq’s counter-terrorism forces backed by army troops and U.S.-led coalition air strikes advanced towards the western town of Hit on March 31, in an attempt to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, the military said.
A senior officer from the counter-terrorism forces, the elite U.S.-trained units which led the recapture of nearby Ramadi three months ago, said his troops were one kilometer from the town center, 130 km west of the capital Baghdad.
The recapture of Hit, strategically located on the Euphrates River near Ain al-Asad air base where several hundred U.S. forces are training Iraqi army troops, would push ISIL further west towards the Syrian border, cutting a connection to the northern town of Samarra and leaving Fallujah their only stronghold near the capital.
Baghdad has had success in pushing back the militants in recent months and has pledged to retake the northern city of Mosul later this year, but progress has often been fitful.
Another officer, on a frontline less than 3 km from Hit, said the operation had begun at early in the morning and was progressing swiftly.
“There are some IEDs along the movement but it’s still good to go and we are moving,” he said by phone.
In a statement announcing the advance, the military said the offensive was backed by airstrikes from the Iraqi army and air force as well as the international coalition fighting ISIL in the areas of Iraq and neighboring Syria where the militants declared a “caliphate” in 2014.
The statement called on civilians in Hit, thought to number in the tens of thousands, to move away from ISIL positions: “Those targets will be destroyed”.
Meanwhile, U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that U.S. President Barack Obama would have the chance to decide on whether to increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq in the “coming weeks.”
The extra troops would bolster the capabilities of Iraqi forces preparing for a major offensive against ISIL in Mosul, Dunford told a news briefing.
“Those recommendations are being made and the president will have an opportunity to make some decisions here in the coming weeks,” Dunford said. “I brought it to the secretary [Defense Secretary Ashton Carter]. The secretary will engage with the president.”
Dunford said last week he expected an increase in the level of U.S. forces in Iraq from the current 3,800, but that those decisions had not been finalized.