Iraq launches operation to retake province from Isil
Iraq has launched an operation to retake western Anbar province from Islamic State.
Iraqi state TV yesterday announced the start of the operation, in which troops will be backed by Shia and Sunni paramilitary forces, but did not provide further details.
Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the Shia paramilitaries known as Hashid al-Shaabi, which are taking part, said Iraqi forces had launched an operation in desert areas northeast of Ramadi aimed at cutting off the jihadis and preparing a bid to retake the city.
The operation will see a mix of security forces and paramilitaries move south from Salaheddin province, said Mr Assadi.
He said the operation to retake Anbar province will "not last for a long time" and that Iraqi forces have surrounded the provincial capital, Ramadi, from three sides.
Mr Assadi said that new weapons were being used in the battle "that will surprise the enemy".
The operation had been named "Labeyk Ya Hussein", which roughly translates as "We are at your service, Hussein" and refers to one of the most revered imams in Shia Islam.
The Hashed al-Shaabi ("popular mobilisation" in Arabic) is an umbrella group for mostly Shia militia and volunteers, which the government called in after Isil captured Ramadi on May 17. "The operation's goal is to liberate those regions between Salaheddin and Anbar and try to isolate the province of Anbar," Mr Assadi told AFP.
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, fell to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) jihadis last Sunday. Isil had already seized large parts of Anbar starting in early 2014.
Last Saturday, Shia militias massed in the nearby town of Habbaniya headed back to Ramadi's outskirts to assault Isil positions. They reclaimed the town of Husaybah, four miles east from Ramadi.
The move to wrest Ramadi back into government control is seen as vital to stop Isil using it as a launch pad to attack Baghdad, which lies just an hour's drive further east along Iraq's main motorway.
Meanwhile, the Syrian air force killed at least 140 members of Isil in an air raid on a military base held by the group in the north of the country, state news agency Sana said yesterday.
Citing a military source, it said the raid on Tabqa air base in Raqqa province also wounded dozens of Islamic State fighters. Islamic State seized the base in August after fierce fighting and killed a large number of soldiers.
Last night, Syria's antiquities chief said that the historic city of Palmyra had been unharmed since Isil seized it from state control last week.
Maamoun Abdulkarim said he was still afraid Isil would blow up Palmyra's 2,000-year-old Roman ruins at Palmyra including tombs and the Temple of Bel, which could be viewed as idolatrous in its puritanical vision of Islam. Still, Abdulkarim said "the historic city is fine. There is no damage so far".