Iraqi federal troops continued their push to regain control over a Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish triangle border area where an oil pipeline was used by the Kurdish region to export oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, federal military command sources told Arab News on Thursday.
Iraq lost almost a third of its territories to Daesh when its militants swept the northern and western parts of the country in June 2014, after the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army.
Baghdad, in cooperation with its international, regional and local backers, has fought back during the last three years to regain its territory and expel militants out of towns and cities and drive them to the desert.
Most cities and towns were taken back except for those near the Iraqi-Syrian border, in addition to some other areas spread in the vast western desert of Anbar province.
“Today, the operation to liberate the last Daesh-strongholds has started,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said in a statement on Thursday.
“We have rejected the idea of accommodating Daesh and we decided to eliminate them because their survival (represents) a danger to everyone,” the statement read.
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By the end of this operation, Baghdad will gain back control over all of its territories and Daesh military presence will come to an end. Small Daesh pockets and sleeper cells will continue to be a source of trouble and small-scale attacks may be needed across the country.
The military operation in western Anbar was due to be launched weeks ago. It was delayed because of the controversial referendum on independence held by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in September, as most Iraqi troops have been involved in a military campaign launched by Baghdad to regain control over the northern city of Kirkuk, its lucrative oil fields and the disputed areas adjacent to the Kurdish region which were gradually seized by Kurdistan in recent years.
The advancing federal forces in the north have recaptured most of the disputed areas and have pushed toward the area of Habur to gain control over several towns and villages located in the joint triangle between the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border which includes a Kurdish oil pipeline used to export oil to Ceyhan port in Turkey.
Baghdad has imposed several punitive measures on Kurdistan in the last four weeks including banning international flight to and from the region, stopping financial transaction between Baghdad and the region, rehabilitating the oil pipeline network which extends between Kirkuk and Ceyhan port in Turkey to bypass Kurdistan to resume oil exports.
Baghdad also filed a formal request to Iran and Turkey to shut down their formal crossings with the region.
Iran has shut down its three formal crossings with Kurdistan ahead of the launch of the military operation, while Turkey has been working with the Iraqi federal authorities to open a new crossing outside Kurdistan, near the town of Habur, in preparation to blocking its usual crossings with the region.
Federal forces on Thursday advanced toward Habur from three towns: Rabia, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, Zummar, 60 km north of Mosul, and Perde town on the main way linking Kirkuk to the Kurdish region. Armed clashes broke out between the advancing troops and Kurdish forces deployed in the region, for the second time this week, military sources said.
“Direct clashes stopped since the morning, and despite mortar and rockets launched by Peshmerga from the nearby town, our forces are advancing steadily,” a senior federal military officer involved in the operation who declined to be named told Arab News.
Federal and regional military sources told Arab News that there were casualties from both sides.
No specific numbers of casualties were given, but a senior Kurdish commander and his two bodyguards were killed in Zummar.
Al-Abadi started on Wednesday a regional tour which included Turkey and Iran to discuss the joint interests of the three countries. The September referendum which represents a national security threat for both Turkey and Iran, and measures taken by the Iraqi federal government to abort it, featured strongly in the talks with Turkish and Iranian officials during the past two days, sources close to Al-Abadi told Arab News.
Baghdad has formally rejected on Thursday a proposal presented by KRG to “freeze” the results of the referendum, “immediate” cease-fire between the two sides, and start an “open” dialogue based on the constitution between the federal government and Kurdistan Region.
“Our strategy is to return these (the disputed) areas to the authority of state and we are not accepting (anything) except the cancelation of the referendum and commitment to the constitution,” Al-Abadi said in a statement circulated by his office on Thursday.