The Iraqi government said Thursday that its forces have recaptured the northern town of Hawija from the Islamic State extremist group, stripping the militants of their last urban stronghold in the country and leaving them concentrated in a stretch of desert outposts along the western border with Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi made the announcement while on a state visit to Paris, calling it “a victory not only for Iraqis but also for the whole world.”
The U.S.-led coalition, which provided air and other support, confirmed the “swift and decisive victory” in Hawija, though there were reports of continued fighting in surrounding areas.
"Our Iraqi partners fought bravely and professionally against a brutal and determined enemy, safeguarding innocent civilians throughout the entire campaign,” Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the coalition’s commanding general, said in a statement.
Islamic State, which once claimed about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria for its self-declared caliphate, has been losing territory rapidly. But U.S. officials had worried that the fight for Hawija might be undermined by a vote for independence in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.
The mostly Sunni Arab town, long a bastion of insurgency against Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government, sits in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. After last month’s referendum, Iraq’s parliament called on Abadi to send troops to the city of Kirkuk, which is controlled by Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga but claimed by Baghdad.
The peshmerga have played a vital role in the battle against Islamic State, fighting alongside government security forces and Shiite Arab militias, some of them armed and trained by Iran. But tensions among the various Iraqi forces have escalated since the Sept. 25 referendum, which the central government in Baghdad decried as illegal.
The government imposed an international flight ban and other punitive measures on the Kurdish region, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood. Iran and Turkey, which have significant Kurdish populations of their own, also threatened to retaliate.
In Paris on Thursday, Abadi said the government wasn’t looking for a confrontation but added, “The authority of the federal government should prevail, and no one should challenge the federal authority."
The United Nations has expressed concern about the fate of as many as 78,000 civilians who were believed to be trapped by the fighting in and around Hawija.
Some of the estimated 12,500 who managed to get out described seeing people being buried alive by airstrikes, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Many said they were forced to build mud houses because their homes were destroyed,” the aid group said in a statement. “Some have slept in the open.”
The relative speed of the campaign, which was launched Sept. 21, points to the diminished capabilities of Islamic State since it lost control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in July after a punishing fight that lasted nine months. The battle for the city of Tall Afar, which took place in August, lasted 11 days.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders say morale is low among militants in the Hawija region, hundreds of whom are reported to have fled with their families and surrendered to nearby Kurdish forces. But they say a concurrent campaign to drive Islamic State from the town of Qaim and other footholds in the Euphrates River valley could prove more difficult.
Islamic State also controls territory on the Syrian side of the porous border, although its fighters there are under pressure from a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, as well as Syrian government forces supported by Iran and Russia.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders believe that Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, is hiding in the region straddling the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. Last week, the militants released a purported audio recording of Baghdadi, in which he urged followers to keep up the fight despite recent setbacks.
4 p.m.: This article was replaced with staff reporting.
11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with concerns about the fate of civilians in Hawija and other staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 3:35 a.m.