Islamic State militants on Sunday seized parts of a strategic western town in Iraq in an apparent response to an ongoing government campaign to recapture their main Iraqi stronghold, the northern city of Mosul.
The jihadis captured northern districts of the town of Rutbah as well as local government offices in its centre, military officials said.
Rutbah is near a strategic junction where the highway west from Baghdad forks towards the Syrian and Jordanian borders, is typical of the group’s tactic of launching a major assault elsewhere when it comes under military pressure.
It came as Kurdish Peshmerga troops advancing towards Mosul from the east and north-east claimed further gains against the extremist Sunni organization.
The extremists attacked Rutbah, which security forces had captured from them in May, with car bombs and suicide bombers, the officials said, leaving at least 12 government fighters dead.
The Baghdad government dispatched military reinforcements to back up the fighting against Islamic State, another official said earlier.
“The reinforcements joined other military forces, who are fighting terrorists in order to prevent them from seizing government facilities in the centre of the town,” he said.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Islamic State’s semi-official media outlet, the Amaq News Agency, claimed that the jihadist group had seized half of Rutbah.
The attack comes two days after Islamic State fighters carried out another diversionary attack in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.
Government forces, backed by Kurdish forces and a US-led air alliance, started a high-profile campaign to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, the country’s second-biggest city, on Monday.
They have captured a string of towns and villages, and both Iraqi and US forces have said the operations are ahead of schedule.
The Kurdish Peshmerga on Sunday said they had captured eight villages north-east of Mosul, completely surrounding the Islamic State-held town of Bashiqa some 20 kilometres from the city.
A Peshmerga commander, Aziz Wissi, said that slow progress in recapturing Bashiqa itself was due to the militants’ trademark tactics of using car bombs and planting explosives.
The Peshmerga were now eight kilometres from the outlying districts of Mosul city, Wissi added.
The organization then called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which already held much of eastern Syria, captured large chunks of Iraqi territory, including Mosul, in a blitz in June 2014.
It then declared itself “the Islamic State” and said its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was caliph, entitled to the allegiance of all Muslims worldwide.
In August 2014, it launched a genocidal assault on the Yezidi religious minority in the Sinjar district of Nineveh, killing men and older women and taking girls captive as sex slaves.
That, together with its advance towards the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, led the United States and allies to launch an air campaign that slowly began to reverse its gains.
In recent months, the radical militia has suffered military setbacks and lost ground in Iraq.
Islamic State still holds territory in neighbouring Syria, though it is on the back foot there as well.
Analysts have warned that its territorial losses may lead it to focus more on deadly terrorist attacks such as those it has claimed in Baghdad, Paris, Nice and Brussels.(dpa/NAN)