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Peshmerga forces launch new offensive on Islamic State in Kirkuk

Peshmerga forces have advanced past Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk in an attempt to get rid the Islamic State militants there
Kurdish peshmerga fighters pose in front of a signboard of the Islamic State on 9 March, 2015 (AA)

The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops launched an operation against Islamic State militants south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Monday.

The operation was backed by air strikes from the US-led coalition. The Peshmerga fighters began shelling Islamic State sites at dawn before advancing on a 30 kilometre front southwest of the city. They managed to seize several villages and gain around five kilometres in other places, sources said.

Kurdish MP of the Iraqi parliament Mahmoud Osman told Anadolu Agency: “According to the information we last received, at least 150 Daesh [Islamic State] troops were killed in the land operation carried out by Peshmerga forces and coalition strikes.”

He added that only four Peshmerga fighters were killed and that the offensive was largely successful.

The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk last August as the Iraqi army collapsed in the north and Islamic State militants overran almost a third of the country.

But the city – claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad - has remained vulnerable, with the frontline no more than 20 kilometres away in some places and only an irrigation canal separating the two sides. In late January, the Islamic State briefly overran Kurdish defences around Kirkuk, although Kurdish military sources said that the Peshmerga have now seized the upper hand.

Peshmerga commander Wasta Rasul said that his forces had attacked IS’s positions in the villages of Maktab Khaled, Dakuk, and Harabarut, near Kirkuk while the local police chief in the city said that the coalition’s military planes hit southern districts in the city at least 40 times.

Major-General Omar Saleh Hassan told Reuters that their “advances are continuing” and that the Peshmerga have launched the offensive on “three axes”.

Hassan added that his forces have faced little resistance from the Islamic State fighters, who are channelling the majority of their resources into keeping the city of Tikrit where Iraqi army troops are currently waging a counter offensive in a bid to retake the city.

Battles on the outskirts of the city continued to rage on Monday and followed on from gains made over the weekend, with saw Iraqi army troops and Shiite militias, loyal to the government, make inroads in neighbouring towns.

Military commanders told Reuters that the army and Hashid Shaabi militia group units launched an offensive late on Saturday to break into the centre of al-Dour, a town on the southern edge of Kirkuk where former president Saddam Hussein was found hiding after the 2003 US-led invasion.

By Sunday pro-government forces had succeeded in recapturing central al-Dour, where government headquarters are located, although IS continued to hold western positions, the military sources added. Some 30,000 people have fled the latest flare up in violence.