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Iraq Launches New Operation Against Militants in NE Region


FILE - Shii'te volunteers carry their weapons during an intensive security deployment to fight against militants of the Islamic State, in Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq, Aug. 31, 2014. The Iraqi army and the Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces on Feb. 7, 2018, began cracking down on remaining IS fighters regrouping in Tuz Khurmatu.

The Iraqi army and the Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces on Wednesday started a major offensive against armed militants in the country's northeastern region near the border with Iran.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command said in a statement the operation was aimed at cracking down on remaining Islamic State fighters regrouping in the Tuz Khurmatu district in Saladin province following the terror group's defeats in Mosul and Hawija.

"With the aim of enforcing security and stability, destroying sleeper cells and continuing clearing operations, an operation was launched in the early hours of this morning to search and clear areas east of Tuz Khurmatu," the statement read.

The operation destroyed 50 IS targets in the region and recaptured five oil fields and several villages, the military said, noting the offensive was launched with air support from the U.S.-led coalition and in close coordination with Kurdistan Region's peshmerga forces.

The Kurdish commander in Tuz Khurmatu, Mam Wahab, confirmed the coordination and said the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Forces would withdraw from nearby Kurdish villages after the conclusion of the operation.

Restart of coordination

This was the first time that the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga had coordinated attacks on militant groups since the Kurdish independence referendum, which plunged relations between the two sides to an all-time low as the central government in Baghdad saw the Kurdish move as unconstitutional.

Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq
Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq

Tuz Khurmatu, 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad, is among the areas disputed by the central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region. The Kurdish army withdrew from the district last October after the Iraqi army made advances on the region following the Kurdish referendum vote.

Over the months, much of the district's northeastern plains and mountain ranges have remained unguarded and become a dividing line between the two armies, thereby making it a hotbed for IS remnants and other emerging militant groups.

Ali Husseini, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), told VOA the operation also targeted two newly emerged groups known as the White Banners and the Liberation Army.

"We have encountered no confrontation with the White Banners," Husseini said. "They have possibly fled the area or are still hiding near Hamrin Mountain."

New militant groups

Little is known about the new militants, named for their white flag with an outline of a lion's head in the middle. The group emerged late last year during the height of tense relations between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan Region.

Some Iraqi and PMF officials accuse the Kurdistan Region of being behind the group. Kurdish officials deny the accusations, however, and charge that the group is an offshoot of IS fighters with loyalty to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

The second new militant group, the Liberation Army, consists of a group of Kurdish "volunteer" fighters displaced by the Iraqi government forces during their offensive on the disputed territories last October.

In an interview with VOA in December, the group's members said their objective was to fight against the Iran-backed PMF militants. PMF played a key role in the Iraqi army's operation in the disputed territories last year.

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