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Iraq Steps Up Strikes on IS-held Hawija Ahead of Offensive

Hawija, Iraq

The Iraqi air force and the U.S.-led coalition on Saturday stepped up a campaign of airstrikes on the Islamic State-held town of Hawija ahead of a planned ground assault there, according to Iraq's minister of defense.

Also Saturday, the secretary-general of the Arab League visited Baghdad to encourage political dialogue with Irbil as Iraq's Kurdish region pushes forward with plans to hold a referendum on independence September 25.

Despite ongoing military operations to clear out the last pockets of territory held by IS, the looming referendum has increased tensions between the central government and the Kurdish region.

"There are large operations underway ahead of the liberation of Hawija and surrounding areas," Iraqi Defense Minister Erfan al-Hayali told The Associated Press, explaining that his forces were working closely with Iraqi Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga as well as the coalition.

During the operation to retake Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, Iraq's military coordinated attacks with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. After a grueling nine-month fight, Mosul was declared liberated in July.

It is unclear whether Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga will continue to cooperate once the referendum is held.

Last month, the Iraqi military command overseeing the IS fight declared victory in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and announced Hawija, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, would be the site of the next battle against the extremists.

The stepped-up coalition strikes are targeting IS territory in western Anbar as well as Hawija, said U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, coalition spokesman.

"Coming off of their victory in Tal Afar [Iraqi security forces] will use a lot of the same techniques," Dillon said. "Simultaneous attacks proved to be very successful, as did operations ahead of time to let civilians know what to do."

Defense Minister al-Hayali said his forces began radio broadcasts and leaflet drops on Hawija, warning civilians of the planned push.

The United Nations said the operation to retake Tal Afar forced 20,000 people to flee, according to counts by Iraqi authorities. When the fight for Hawija begins, the U.N. estimates 60,000 people will be affected.