Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Iraqi army drive armored vehicles on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq, Oct. 4, 2017.
Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Iraqi army drive armored vehicles on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq, Oct. 4, 2017.

The Iraqi army and members of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have entered the town of Hawija in an operation to oust Islamic State from its last stronghold in northern Iraq, commanders on the ground told VOA.

"The army, the federal police, the rapid response, and the Popular Mobilization forces are storming the center of Hawija town," the Iraqi Joint Command Operations said quoting Abdul-Amir Rashid Yarallah, the commander of the Hawija operation.

"The enemy has endured loss in lives and equipment as we continue to make progress," Yarallah added.

The town of Hawija is located in the Sunni-majority district of Al-Hawija, 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad. It was seized by IS after the Iraqi army collapsed in mid-2014.

Displaced people, who fled from their homes in Haw
Displaced people, who fled from their homes in Hawija, cross the water to reach the other bank to be transported to camps for displaced people, in southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 4, 2017.

Iraq started its operation to retake the district on Sept. 21. It gained a strategic foothold Monday after recapturing Rashad air base about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Hawija, which served as a training camp and logistic base for IS in the region.

Commanders on the ground told VOA that Wednesday's advances could be the final push before IS militants are completely ousted.

Wasta Rasul, a Kurdish peshmerga commander on the front lines of southern Kirkuk, told VOA that the Iraqi army and PMF militiamen entered southwest of the town early Wednesday and seized Rashad, Zab and al-Abbasi neighborhoods.

He said intense clashes for recovering the Riya, Saidia, and Hilwa neighborhoods on the north side started in the afternoon local time. 

"The town can be liberated anytime now," he said. "IS militants are not showing much resistance in the face of the assault. They are fleeing the front line. We suspect many fighters will ultimately flee to [nearby] Hamrin Mountain."

Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) members r
Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) members run with their weapons on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq, Oct. 4, 2017.

Rasul added that the Kurdish peshmerga forces did not directly participate in the battle but provided intelligence information, and worked as a barrier to prevent besieged IS fighters from escaping.

Number of IS fighters

It is unknown how many IS fighters are in Hawija but Abu Xalid, a commander of Popular Mobilization Force, told VOA earlier this week that Iraqi intelligence estimates there are 500 local and foreign fighters in the town.

Commanders on the ground charge that IS has set fire to oil wells, and has forced civilians who remained to serve as human shields to inhibit airstrikes.

The United Nations on Tuesday warned that up to 78,000 people could be trapped in the town and face increased danger as the fighting reaches densely populated areas. It said around 12,500 civilians have fled their homes since the start of the offensive on Sept. 21.

"We remain concerned for the lives and well-being of these vulnerable civilians and remind those doing the fighting that civilians must be protected at all times and allowed to safely leave Hawija," U.N. spokesperson Jens Laerke told reporters during a news conference in Geneva.

The district had a population of 500,000 before IS took control in 2014. That number shrunk significantly over the years as many residents fled IS violence to refugee camps under Kurdish control.

VOA's Yahya Barzinji contributed to this report.