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Iraqi forces enter IS's last major stronghold in the country

Hawija's recapture would leave only a handful of remote posts in IS hands in Iraq
Iraqi army members fire towards Islamic State militants' positions on the outskirts of Hawija (Reuters)

Iraqi forces pushed into the Islamic State group bastion of Hawija on Wednesday, commanders said, stepping up their assault against one of the militants’ last enclaves in the country.

Government and allied forces backed by a US-led coalition launched an offensive last month to oust IS from Hawija, a longtime militant bastion.

The town is among the final holdouts from the territory seized by the miltants in 2014 and its recapture would leave only a handful of remote outposts in IS hands.

The Hawija operation's commander, Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah, said the army, federal police and rapid response force had begun a major operation "to liberate the centre of Hawija and the neighbouring town of Riyadh".

Federal police chief Raed Shakir Jawdat said in a statement that the latest "phase of the operation to liberate Hawija" had begun with artillery and missile fire on IS positions.

He said that elite federal police units had entered the city from the northwest.

"They are advancing and the goal is to take seven neighbourhoods of Hawija and 12 vital objectives," he said, without providing more details. 

The operation involves the army, the federal police, elite units, as well as tribal volunteers and the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary force, mainly made up of Iran-trained Shia militia.

12,500 flee offensive

The United Nations said on Tuesday that an estimated 12,500 people had fled the town since the launch of the offensive.

The UN's humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) said the number of people still in the town was unknown but could be as high 78,000.

It said humanitarian agencies have set up checkpoints, camps and emergency sites in the area capable of receiving more than 70,000 people who could flee the Hawija operation. 

Hawija, 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of just two areas of Iraq still held by IS, along with a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian border which is also under attack.

Hawija has been a militant bastion since soon after the US-led invasion of 2003, earning it the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's bastion in Afghanistan.

The town's mainly Sunni Arab population is deeply hostile both to the Shia-led government in Baghdad and to the Kurds who form the historic majority in adjacent areas.

The town lies between the two main routes north from Baghdad - to second city Mosul, recaptured from IS in July, and to the city of Kirkuk and the autonomous Kurdish region.

IS has been forced out of most of the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria during a lightning offensive in the summer of 2014 that was followed by its declaration of a cross-border "caliphate". 

The US-led coalition is also backing an Arab-Kurdish alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that is battling to oust IS from its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

Under pressure in Iraq, Syria

The SDF has captured about 90 percent of Raqqa and is fighting fierce battles with remaining IS fighters.

IS's other main stronghold in Syria is the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders IS-held territory in Iraq. 

Two separate offensives are under way against the militants there - one by the SDF, the other by government forces supported by Russia.

The group last week released an alleged recording of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calling on the IS fighters to "resist" their enemies.

An Iraqi woman, displaced from Hawija, raises a white flag while travelling with family members and a donkey-cart on the road outside the town on Tuesday (AFP)

"The leaders of the Islamic State and its soldiers have realised that the path to... victory is to be patient and resist the infidels whatever their alliances," the voice said in the recording.

It was Baghdadi's first alleged message in nearly a year and followed reports of his possible death.

Analysts have warned that as it comes under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, IS is likely to seek to carry out more attacks abroad.

The group this week claimed responsibility for the Las Vegas shooting massacre, but US officials have found no evidence so far to link the shooter with militants and experts say IS may be trying to rally its supporters with false claims.

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