Iraqi Forces, Kurds Gain Ground Against ISIS

In biggest gain after months of fighting, Iraqi forces drive out Islamic State troops from most of Jurf al-Sakhar.

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Iraq Shiite fighters make their way to the front line to fight militants from the extremist Islamic State group in Jurf al-Sakhar, Baghdad, Iraq, Aug 18, 2014.Credit: AP

Iraqi security forces made significant gains against Islamic State in a strategic area near Baghdad on Saturday and Kurdish fighters retook a northern town after heavy coalition air strikes against the Sunni Islamist insurgents.

Iraqi troops seized most of Jurf al-Sakhar, the biggest advance in months of battles against Islamic State in the town about 60 km (40 miles) south of Baghdad, senior local officials said.

A victory could allow Iraqi authorities to prevent the Sunni insurgents from edging closer to the capital and maintaining connections to their strongholds in western Anbar province as well as infiltrating the mainly Shi'ite south.

"We have managed to push out Islamic State terrorists from the town of Jurf al-Sakhar today and now we are raising the Iraqi flag over the government offices," provincial governor Sadiq Madloul told Reuters.

Islamic State swept through northern Iraq in the summer, facing little resistance from U.S.-trained government troops.

The al Qaeda offshoot then declared a caliphate and threatened to march on Baghdad, rattling the Shi'ite-led government and intensifying sectarian bloodshed.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed seven Shi'ite militiamen in a town just north of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

Islamic State controls large parts of the Sunni heartland in Iraq's western Anbar province, as well as swathes of Syria and wants to redraw the map of the Middle East.

State television broadcast footage of Iraqi forces moving through a rural area surrounding Jurf al-Sakhar, where Islamic State had used roadside bombs and snipers to keep its enemies from approaching.

Strategic Islamic State network at stake

Sunni insurgents have been moving fighters, weapons and supplies from western Iraq through secret desert tunnels to Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraqi officials have said. Now it appears government forces have come closer than ever to disrupting that network.

Some Islamic State fighters had fled towards the western city of Falluja, which is held by the group, while fighting still raged near a bridge linking Jurf al-Sakhar to Anbar, said a commander and spokesman for Iraqi security forces.

"There has been a significant collapse among Islamic State fighters. Attacks by Iraqi army helicopters have not stopped since yesterday," said Raad Hamza, head of the Hilla Provincial Council.

Speaking by telephone, Hamza said he was in Jurf al-Sakhar with Iraqi security forces. It was not immediately possible to independently confirm his account of events in the town.

While Iraq's army and Shi'ite militias have resisted Islamic State efforts to move closer to Baghdad, Kurdish forces regained some of the territory the insurgents seized in the north.

The Kurds retook the town of Zumar and several nearby villages from early on Saturday after heavy coalition air strikes against the insurgents, security sources said.

If the Kurds manage to hold Zumar, that could enable them to disrupt Islamic State supply lines to nearby towns and cities.

A Kurdish intelligence officer in Zumar said peshmerga forces had advanced from five directions in the early morning and encountered fierce resistance, but ultimately prevailed. A spokesman for the peshmerga ministry also said Zumar was now in Kurdish hands.

Zumar was one of the first Kurdish-controlled towns to be overrun in August by Islamic State who went on to threaten the autonomous region's capital, prompting air strikes by the United States - a campaign since joined by Britain and France.

If the Kurds are able to keep Zumar, it would also make it easier for them to advance on Sinjar, where Islamic State are besieging members of Iraq's Yazidi minority on a mountain.

Helped by the air strikes, Kurds have regained ground but progress has been hampered by a lack of heavy weaponry and by homemade bombs and booby-traps laid by the militants.

Gains can be easily lost in the war against Islamic State.

The Kurds claimed victory in Zumar in September, only to withdraw from the town again after suffering heavy losses.

One peshmerga fighter deployed in the area on Saturday said a sniper was still at large in a village adjacent to Zumar, and a car bomb had exploded when they approached the vehicle, killing seven peshmerga.

In another village, Ayn al-Helwa, the peshmerga said 17 militants had been taken captive, all of them Sunni Turkmen.

While American air strikes have had some impact on the insurgents, it's not clear whether they will be enough to secure a defeat in the long term in major oil producer Iraq, and Syria.

The United States and its allies conducted 22 air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq on Friday and Saturday, the U.S. Central Command said.

U.S. warplanes also destroyed an Islamic State artillery piece near Kobani, Syria, officials said Saturday.

The Syrian town near Turkey's border appears in less danger of falling to Islamic State, but the threat still remains, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The 22 strikes in Iraq included attacks in the frequently targeted areas near the vital Mosul dam, the city of Fallujah and the northern city of Baiji, home of an oil refinery.

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