Iraq forces launch assault on last IS-held pocket
Iraqi forces launched an offensive on Saturday to retake the last pocket of territory in the country still held by the Islamic State group, the operation's commander said.
The Euphrates valley town of Rawa and nearby villages were bypassed by government troops and allied militia when they retook the Syrian border town of Al-Qaim last week.
Troops backed by militia recruited among the region's Sunni Arab tribes "launched a major offensive to liberate Rumana and the Rawa area," General Abdelamir Yarallah said.
Rumana is on the north side of the Euphrates just across from Al-Qaim while the small town of Rawa lies downstream.
Rawa is the last town still held by IS apart from Albu Kamal, Al-Qaim's twin town just across the Syrian border where the militants were still battling Syrian government troops and allied forces on Saturday after mounting a surprise counter-attack late Thursday.
The Syrian army had declared victory in the battle for Albu Kamal, but IS fighters pushed back in from the desert to the north where they still control a strip of territory between areas held by government troops and by US-backed Kurdish-led forces.
The recapture of the Rawa pocket would mark the final battleground defeat of IS in Iraq and sound the death knell of the sprawling "caliphate" the group declared in 2014 over an area of Iraq and Syria the size of Britain.
On Friday, IS fighters conducted a blistering counter-attack on Albu Kamal in a desperate bid to cling to their last urban bastion.
The militants punched back into the town they had lost a day earlier and swiftly retook several northern neighbourhoods, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
"IS started counter-attacking on Thursday night and retook more than 40 percent of the town of Albu Kamal," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory, told AFP.
Syrian government forces and allied fighters had retaken the town, which lies on the border with Iraq in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, from the militants on Thursday.
"The jihadists went back in and retook several neighbourhoods in the north, northeast and northwest," Abdel Rahman said. "IS is trying to defend its last bastion."