October 5, 2017 at 10:04 AM
DIBIS, Iraq — Iraqi forces have reclaimed the town of Hawijah from the Islamic State, Iraq's prime minister said Thursday, though fighting continued in pockets of the last significant urban territory controlled by the militant group.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made the announcement from Paris, where he was meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss a growing crisis over an independence referendum held by Iraq's Kurds.
Macron offered to mediate between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds, even as other regional powers have taken steps to isolate the Kurdish region in retaliation for last week's vote.
France has been a traditional proponent of Kurdish self-determination, but Macron said Iraq's territorial integrity must be maintained — dashing hopes by Kurdish officials that France would become one of the few countries to support a possible break from Baghdad.
Hawijah, about 140 miles north of Baghdad, also marked an important test of military coordination between Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, and Iraqi government troops.
The town is in Kirkuk province, an oil-rich region that is hotly disputed by both Arabs and Kurds and has been a focal point in decades-old discord between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders over borders.
The United States opposed the Kurdish referendum, claiming it would threaten cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State at a time when the extremist group is reeling from consecutive military defeats.
In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State said some 1,000 Islamic State fighters surrendered during the fight for Hawijah — a notable figure because Iraqi and American officials had estimated there were some 1,500 fighters in the town before the battle was launched.
Hundreds of suspected militants are now being held at a Kurdish intelligence facility in Dibis, about 27 miles northeast of Hawijah.
"Today's victory demonstrates we are stronger together, and this coalition remains committed to supporting our partners in the tough fight ahead as we continue our mission to defeat ISIS," Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, a senior American commander, said in a statement Thursday congratulating the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Hawijah was a strategic position for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, giving it a base in central Iraq to launch attacks in surrounding provinces. The battle to reclaim the town was launched Sept. 21 and involved a mix of Iraqi forces backed by American airstrikes.
The fight for Hawijah was one of the few remaining areas in which Iraqi and Kurdish parties were cooperating.
Last week, Kurdish authorities held a unilateral referendum on independence, which was approved by nearly 93 percent of voters in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The vote was opposed by the Iraqi central government, the United States, Turkey, Iran and others. It has set off a string of recriminations and threats of a total economic blockade of the Kurdish region by Iraq, Turkey and Iran — all of which have held military exercises as a warning to Kurdish officials.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish media Thursday that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would decide together whether to choke off the flow of oil from the Kurdish region.
Related: [A year after ISIS]
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of militias aligned with the Iraqi government, strongly opposed the Kurdish independence referendum as well. They participated in the Hawijah battle, putting them in proximity to Kurdish peshmerga forces and raising fears of clashes between the groups.
In a joint news conference with Macron, Abadi said there is no "military option" to resolve the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.
The relatively swift fight in Hawijah has mimicked August's battle for the northern city of Tal Afar, where the militants put up mild resistance before surrendering or withdrawing.
One suspect, who spoke in the presence of his captors, said he and others had fled toward Kurdish lines because they feared they would be treated more far harshly by Iraqi troops.
The battles for Hawijah and Tal Afar mark a dramatic turnaround in the Islamic State's ability to hold ground and inflict significant damage in Iraq.
Iraqi and U.S. officials involved in the campaign to eradicate the group said the Islamic State was exhausted and severely depleted during the grueling nine-month battle for Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq and the most important territory the militants held after their 2014 sweep of northern and central Iraq.
Also facing the ongoing battles to evict the group from the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, the Islamic State has ceded roughly 90 percent of the territory it once controlled.
In Iraq, the group now controls only a string of small towns in the vast desert of western Anbar province along the Syrian border. Iraqi forces launched a campaign there last month and expect a tough fight in an area that is difficult to control.
It is in that porous border region that U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is hiding. Last week, the Islamic State released an audio recording purported to be of Baghdadi — defying Russian claims that the reclusive leader was killed over the summer.
El-Ghobashy reported from Cairo. Kareem Fahim in Dibis contributed to this report.