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Battle to retake Anbar province hindered by IS attacks

The Islamic State group, in a bid to impede the Iraqi forces' advance into Anbar province, are attacking towns with suicide car bombs and rockets
Iraqi Sunni volunteers from the Anbar province, who joined Iraq's Popular Mobilisation force show their skills during their graduation ceremony at the Habaniyah military base, near Anbar province's capital Ramadi, on 17 June 2015 (AFP)

Iraqi army troops and its allied Popular Mobilisation Units (Hashid Sha’bi) have embarked on the first stages to recapture the Anbar province, Iraq’s largest, from the Islamic State group.

IS captured Anbar’s capital Ramadi in May, following a three-day blitz that dealt the government its worst military setback in a year. The territory from the Euphrates river valley west of the capital city Baghdad is now under IS control.

The group had been expanding into Anbar from the west for the past 12 months, capturing towns alongside main routes, but has been in control of Fallujah, another major city, since early 2014.

While the Iraqi government initially declared its intention to promptly take back Ramadi, it has instead turned its attention to Fallujah, which is closer to the capital city Baghdad.

Colonel Ali al-Yasiri, commander of Iraq's 4th armoured regiment, 1st division, which is fighting near Falluja, said plans for a quick offensive to retake Ramadi were put on hold in June after commanders decided that Falluja represents "a dagger pointed at the army in Ramadi" unless it was tackled first.

"Our commanders gave us orders one week after losing Ramadi to regroup ... in order to launch a counter offensive to retake Ramadi," Yasiri told Reuters. "This decision failed to win support from all military commanders."

The PMU have proved to be more effective on the ground than the Iraqi army, the latter riddled with corruption and lack of coordination. Iraqi President Haidar al-Abadi has turned to the mainly Shia PMUs for their experience and efficacy at recapturing territory from IS.

Attacks by the Islamic State who are attempting to stem the army and PMUs advance into Anbar were reported on Friday morning, where suicide car bombs were used in Khaldiyah, a town located between Fallujah and Ramadi.

According to a police lieutenant colonel, IS fighters stormed Khaldiyah’s al-Madiq neighbourhood “following clashes that forced army and federal police to abandon their positions.”

“Local police and tribal fighters were left alone to fight ISIS in that area,” the lieutenant colonel said. “After entering al-Madiq, the [group] deployed fighters with suicide vests in houses and streets.”

Government forces were attacked with suicide car bombs used by IS IS claimed that it had killed tens of pro-government fighters in Khaldiyah, a key staging ground for the army to undertake operations to recapture Anbar. However, there was no confirmation from security officials.

"Hashid [PMU] forces are closing in on ISIS terrorists inside Falluja after seizing almost all supply routes around the city," said Muen al-Kadhimi, a senior aide to Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the Iranian-backed Badr organization, the most powerful of Iraq's armed Shiite groups.

"Now we are only 5 kilometres from the centre of Fallujah and the plan to liberate the city is going perfectly," said Kadhimi.

"We can’t go to Ramadi first and leave our back exposed,” he added. “This is why Falluja is a prior target."