PENTAGON - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday his forces have begun an offensive to retake control of the town of Hawija, one of the last areas in Iraq held by Islamic State militants.
Hawija is located 240 kilometers north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and just west of the oil city of Kirkuk.
Counter-Islamic State coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters via video conference from Baghdad Thursday that Iraqi forces cleared 11 villages Thursday morning in the first offensive operations aimed at retaking the area.
“It is clear that ISIS terrorists are overwhelmed and outmatched,” Dillon said.
Islamic State militants have been in control of Hawija since 2014, when the group swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq. The coalition estimates that between 800 and 1,500 Islamic State fighters remain in the town.
The offensive comes just days before a Kurdish referendum on independence from Iraq.
The United States government opposes the vote, which Dillon called “a distraction from the fight against ISIS.”
He said there had been speculation in Iraq that government forces fighting IS were “holding back” on retaking Hawija, just 65 km from the major Kurdish city of Kirkuk, as a “bargaining chip or as a threat to the referendum.”
“Clearly that is not the case,” he added.
Dillon said that thus far, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are not part of the advance on Hawija but will “likely play a part because of proximity.” He said he anticipates their role in the offensive to be much like it was in the battle for the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, where they played a “large role” in killing Islamic State fighters as they fled north into the Peshmerga line of defense.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 civilians have fled the area during the past three years, and that the estimated 85,000 who remain are "likely to be heavily affected" by the fighting in the coming weeks.
The U.N. humanitarian office said it is working with local authorities and aid groups in order to be ready to help an increasing number of people who flee.
For more than a week, coalition warplanes have carried out airstrikes in the Hawija area targeting Islamic State tunnels, vehicles, weapons, fighting positions and a bomb-making facility.
"The liberation of Hawija will be yet another major achievement in the ISF's relentless drive to liberate civilians trapped by ISIS," said Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, the coalition's deputy commander for strategy and support.
Iraqi forces earlier this week launched a separate operation to go after the remaining Islamic State fighters in parts of western Anbar province. Those militants are mainly located in the area along the border across from Islamic State territory in the Euphrates River valley that stretches up through Deir el-Zour and the group's de facto capital in Raqqa. Both Syrian cities are the sites of offensives to oust Islamic State group as well.