As the push to recapture Mosul from Islamic State (IS) enters its final days, Iraqi forces say they will soon launch an assault on Hawija, the terror group's last stronghold in the country.
Iraqi forces say IS's self-proclaimed caliphate is crumbling after three years of brutal control, although the militants are considered likely to persist as an insurgent force even after they are forced out of Hawija, roughly 160 kilometers (99 miles) south of Mosul.
Iraqi forces say they do not expect a difficult battle given that IS fighters in Hawija have been encircled and isolated for weeks by Iraqi forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi'ite militias.
“Our preparation for the Hawija operation is complete and a plan to liberate the city is ready,” Muhammad al-Khazary, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told VOA.
Al-Khizary declined to be specific on when the offensive will start to make it a “surprise” for IS but said it will come “soon after Mosul is fully liberated.”
The U.S.-backed Iraq forces on Thursday declared a major victory against IS in Mosul when they announced they had taken control over the rubble of the historic al-Nuri mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate in mid-2014.
IS militants blew up the 850-year-old mosque and its landmark leaning minaret last week to keep Iraqi forces from seizing it intact.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described the action as “an official acknowledgement of defeat” by IS and its recapture by Iraqi forces a major achievement for his country's war on terror.
“We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state; the liberation of Mosul proves that,” al-Abadi said in a tweet Thursday, using an Arabic acronym for IS. “We will not relent, our brave forces will bring victory.”
Hawija is a Sunni-majority district consisting of a town of the same name and 500 villages in Kirkuk province, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Kirkuk and 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad.
It had a population of 500,000 before IS took control in mid-2014. That number has reportedly shrunk by half as many residents fled IS violence. IS is forcing those who remain to serve as human shields to inhibit airstrikes, Iraqi forces say.
The Iraqi air force earlier this week dropped thousands of leaflets on the town, urging residents to stay away from IS locations ahead of the looming operation.
“The Iraqi armed forces will start to storm your area very soon,” said the leaflet, posted by Iraqi activists on social media. “Protect yourself and your family by staying inside homes and staying away from IS sites such as headquarters, checkpoints, artillery sites and barracks because they will be our targets.”
Officials in Kirkuk, where most displaced Hawija residents have taken refuge, say they expect more civilians to try to flee as the Iraqi operation starts.
Refugees, safe routes
Aso Dalo, a police officer in Kirkuk, told VOA the city government has prepared refugee camps while security forces open up safe routes.
“We are prepared for all scenarios,” Dalo said.
Kurdish peshmerga forces, who have controlled the Hawija's northern borders and its four gates since August 2016, say they are prepared to cooperate with the Iraqi army to oust IS. They say removal of the militants will improve the security of nearby Kurdish areas.
Kurdish commander Lt. Col. Himdad Omar told VOA that most IS fighters in the town are expected to fight to the death. He said it was unknown how many militants are in the city, but that the majority are foreign fighters.
“The foreign fighters have controlled all matters in the city and consider local fighters inferior,” Omar said. “This has led to arguments and even clashes between them recently.”
Experts say the start of an operation and the ultimate removal of IS from Hawija will mark a major military victory for Iraq. But they warn IS may linger long after losing territory and turn to violent insurgency.
“IS will lose militarily, but its political and ideological influence will remain for a long time,” Mazin Bilah, an Iraqi analyst, told VOA. “They will turn back to sleeper cells, which have proven very effective for them, rather than confronting an army in the battlefield.”
VOA's Balen Salih contributed to this report.