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UK minister expects Raqqa advance 'by spring'

Fallon says Islamic State group may also expelled from Iraq's Mosul this year

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon speaks at news conference in Erbil, capital of Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq on Saturday (AFP)

Western-backed Syrian forces should be able to isolate the Islamic State (IS) group's de facto capital Raqqa in Syria "by the spring" before an offensive on the city itself, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on Saturday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the powerful Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, launched the campaign on Raqqa in November.

It announced this month the start of a new phase in the offensive, aiming to complete its encirclement of the city and cut off the road to the militants' stronghold in Deir al-Zor, southeast of Raqqa.

"I hope that isolation will be completed by the spring and then operations to liberate Raqqa itself can begin thereafter," Fallon told reporters in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

IS is fighting hard to preserve its foothold in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq.

US-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces last month dislodged the militants from the eastern side of Mosul, their last city stronghold in Iraq, and are preparing an offensive on the parts of the city that lie west of the Tigris river.

"Raqqa is a much smaller city than Mosul, but will clearly be defended very vigorously by Daesh (IS) and that means the operation to liberate Raqqa has to be very carefully prepared, as the operation for Mosul was," Fallon said.

Britain is part of the US-led coalition supporting forces battling IS in both Iraq and Syria.

Taking back Mosul

Fallon said that he expected to see IS expelled from Iraq's major towns by the end of this year.

"We expect to see Daesh expelled from the major towns and cities of Iraq during the course of the year," he said.

Iraqi forces are nearly four months into a massive operation to retake nearby Mosul, which is the country's second city and where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in 2014.

The militant organisation then controlled about a third of Iraq, but federal and allied forces have since retaken two-thirds of that territory and Mosul is IS's last major stronghold.

After retaking the eastern side of Mosul last month, Iraqi forces are currently preparing to launch an assault on the part of the city that lies west of the Tigris River.

Commanders expect the battle to be fierce because the narrow streets of the Old City will complicate operations and the western side also harbours some traditional militant bastions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said at the new year that he expected his forces would need three more months to rid the country of IS.

Most observers argued that the premier's prediction was optimistic, however, with Mosul alone threatening to bog down Iraqi forces way past that target.

Retaking the northern city would deal a death blow to the "caliphate" and any claim that IS is still running a "state,"  but the group retains control of several populated areas.

In Iraq, IS still holds Hawijah, a large town southeast of Mosul, and the town of al-Qaim on the western border with Syria.

"Once Raqqa is liberated after Mosul, we will see the beginning of the end of this terrible caliphate," Fallon said.

A 60-nation coalition led by the US has carried out thousands of air strikes in support of the war on IS and provided assistance and training to thousands of Iraqi forces.

Fallon said the Royal Air Force had struck 300 targets in and around Mosul since the operation to retake the city began on 17 October.

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