Iraq prepares to recapture last IS urban bastion
Iraqi government and paramilitary forces announced plans to launch an assault to retake Hawija, the last of the Islamic State group's urban bastion in the country, a day after announcing a victory in Tal Afar.
Iraqi forces have now forced IS out of all its Iraqi territories except the town of Hawija, 300 kilometres (190 miles) north of Baghdad, and three pockets of territory near the border with Syria.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the recapture of Tal Afar town and its surrounding areas, weeks after ousting the militants from Iraq's second city Mosul, bringing all of Nineveh province under government control.
"After the Tal Afar mission was successfully accomplished, the troops will head to Hawija," in oil-rich Kirkuk province, Iraq's Joint Operations Centre (JOC) said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary group, told AFP the offensive could be launched very soon.
"The operation to liberate Hawija will begin a few days after Eid al-Adha," spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi, said referring to the Muslim holiday marking the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The JOC said Iraqi aircrafts dropped "millions of leaflets" on Hawija to inform residents that the rule of "the terrorist gangs of IS will soon be over".
Residents were urged to "keep away" from militants who could become the target of airstrikes by Iraqi forces backed by the US-led international coalition.
The leaflets also called on the militants to "surrender and give up their weapons".
Assadi said the operation aimed at retaking an area of 9,000 square kilometres (3,500 sq miles), covering the town of Hawija and surrounding the area, including eastern Shargat, a town further west.
The battle for Hawija is expected to be more complicated because of its location.
Oil-rich Kirkuk province is at the centre of a long dispute and a source of lingering tensions between the Iraqi federal government and the regional Kurdish authorities.
An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25, which Baghdad has called "untimely".
IS, which seized nearly a third of Iraq in 2014 in a stunning defeat for the army, now controls just 10 percent of the country, according to the US-led international coalition against the extremists.