PARIS (AP) — Iraqi government forces have retaken the northern town of Hawija from the Islamic State group, one of the militant group’s last strongholds in Iraq, the country’s prime minister said Thursday.
Haider al-Abadi said in Paris that the fight against IS will now focus on the border zone with Syria.
“I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today,” he said, calling it a “victory not just for Iraq but for the whole world.”
Plans to retake Hawija had been complicated by political wrangling among the Iraqi security forces, Shiite armed groups and the Kurdish peshmerga troops. The town is part of the Kirkuk governorate, which is disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.
Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the town, which lies 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, late last month just two days after Iraqi forces began an offensive against IS holdouts in Iraq’s vast western Anbar province.
Earlier in the month, Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition planes had stepped up a campaign of airstrikes on Hawija, targeting IS bases and weapons facilities.
IS has been steadily losing ground and seeing its sprawling caliphate — which in 2014 spanned a third of the territory of Iraq and also neighboring Syria — crumbling fast. The territory it still holds in the western province lies mainly along the border with Syria in the Euphrates River.
“We should chase this terrorist organization everywhere,” al-Abadi said. “This is a very dangerous organization that works for spreading instability.”
Also in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron offered to have France to mediate between the Iraqi government and Kurds seeking independence after a controversial referendum.
Macron made the offer after meeting with al-Abadi in Paris in wide-ranging talks about French support for the fight against IS and rebuilding Iraqi’s economy.
Macron said France and others are worried about the situation of the Kurds after last month’s referendum, and said France supports the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq. He insisted on the importance of “national reconciliation and inclusive governance” that includes Kurds, “with whom France maintains close ties.”
Macron said dialogue “is the only path” and “France is ready . to contribute actively to mediation.”
Tensions have escalated between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish region. The Shiite-dominated legislature rejected the Sept. 25 referendum in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and areas the Kurds captured battling the Islamic State group since 2014. The Kurds voted by more than 90 percent in support of independence.
Parliament has asked for harsh measures in response to the vote, including sending federal troops to retake the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is held by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad. Lawmakers also dismissed the ethnically mixed Kirkuk province’s Kurdish governor who supported the referendum.
“I’m launching an appeal to everyone, we don’t want armed confrontation, federal authority must prevail,” al-Abadi said.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.