BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces said they cleared booby traps and explosives from a flash-point town south of Baghdad on Saturday after retaking it from Islamic State militants amid a push to shore up security ahead of a major religious commemoration.
The Iraqi government said it had completely secured Jurf al-Sakhar, a town 40 miles southwest of the capital, after a two-day operation. In a statement Friday night, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised Iraq’s “hero forces” for delivering a “fatal blow” against the Islamic State.
The town of 80,000 people had become a key battleground between the largely Sunni province of Anbar, where the militants hold large swaths of territory, and the largely Shiite southern provinces.
Security officials said clearing the area was a key priority ahead of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, drawing millions of pilgrims to his shrine in the southern city of Karbala. The Islamic State, which considers Shiites apostates, is expected to attempt to target the observances.
“This area presents a specific danger to Karbala,” said a security official involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give information to the press. “The political and religious leaders were aware of that threat, so we were sent so many reinforcements.” Those reinforcements were largely from Shiite militias backed by Iran, including the Badr Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, he said.
On his television channel, Badr Brigade commander Hadi al-Amiri claimed to have led the operation in tandem with the country’s new interior minister, who is a member of his party.
Unverified pictures circulated online showed Amiri with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, during the operation. The security official and a militia fighter who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject claimed that he was present on the battlefield.
“Wherever fighters were from, they all shared the same purpose — saving Karbala,” the security official said. “They had the motivation of their faith to remove the threat.”
Five car bombings in the holy city last week added urgency to the operation, he said.
In his statement, Abadi also praised the “public mobilizations” for their work in securing the area — a term that is used to refer to militia members and new volunteers who signed up to fight after a call to arms in June by Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority.
State television channel Iraqia said Saturday that some 100 explosive devices, left by insurgents as they retreated, were removed from Jurf al-Sakhar.
Footage of the battles on militia-run television stations showed large vehicle-mounted rockets being fired during the operation.
“All the weapons we are using are Iranian, and we are proud of that,” said a fighter with Kitaeb Hezbollah who fought in the two-day operation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Shiite militia members were apparently targeted in a bombing Saturday in a town north of Baghdad. Iraqi police said a suicide bomber set off his explosives belt at a gathering of the militiamen in Taji, according to the Associated Press. Eight people were reportedly killed in the attack.
In northern Iraq, Islamic State insurgents appeared to suffer another setback, losing control of the town of Zumar and outlying villages. The extremists took the town in August, part of a rout against Kurdish forces that preceded U.S. airstrikes. Kurdish forces advanced on the town from five directions in the early hours of the morning, an unnamed intelligence official told Reuters news agency.