Iraqi forces captured the Islamic State’s last stronghold in northern Iraq on Thursday, leaving the self-proclaimed caliphate with just one more base of operations.
The militant group ceased its occupation of Hawija in northern Iraq after an offensive by Iraqi government troops and a state-sponsored Shia militia group, known as the “Popular Mobilization Unit.” The only area remaining to the Islamic State in Iraq is a narrow strand along the border between Iraq and Syria.
“I want to announce the liberation of the city of Hawija today,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in Paris on Thursday. The prime minister continued to call it a “victory not just of Iraq but of the whole world.” Video footage on Iraqi state TV showed Iraqi forces raising flags in a town square, surrounded by car wrecks, bullet sprayed buildings, and few signs of human life.
Iraqi coalition forces began their offensive on Hawija on Sept. 21, continuing a string of victories over the Islamic State that started in July, when Iraqi ground forces took Mosul after a 9 month siege.
78,000 people were estimated to be trapped in the town of Hawija, according to the United Nations.
The Leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released an audio recording last week urging his remaining followers to continue fighting. The content of the audio recording indicates that Baghdadi is still alive, despite reports suggesting the ISIS leader was killed in Syria this summer.
Booting the Islamic State from the region is a boost for the Iraqi government because control of Hawija is important for maintaining regional control against ISIS. However, Hawija is also strategic due to its proximity to the Kurdish oil producing city of Kirkuk – a city which the Iraqi state and the Kurdistan Regional Government both claim rightful possession of. The capture of Hawija places Iraqi forces directly next to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in control of Kirkuk.
Hawija was included in the Kurdish referendum on independence, which overwhelming decided in favor of Kurdish independence from Iraq. In response to the independence vote, the Iraqi government has sanctioned the Kurds, raising concerns that the country may soon face ethnic conflict.
“We don’t want any aggression or confrontations, but the federal authority must be imposed in the disputed areas,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a press conference in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.
President Macron offered to mediate negotiations between the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, and promised that French forces would remain in Iraq until the Islamic State was defeated. Macron is currently the only global leader working to reshape the geopolitical situation in Iraq as the Islamic State is dissolving.
Turkey and Iran, however, are continuing their support of the current Iraqi state, in an effort to curb the existence of an independent Kurdish state in the region. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey will close its border with Iraq and shut its airspace because of the Kurdish independence referendum. President Erdogan also said that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would all be shutting off the flow of oil from Kurdistan.
“If a decision will be made on closing oil taps in the region, that will be made by us. Turkey, Iran and Iraq’s central government will do so together,” said Erdogan.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Erdogan on Wednesday, and said Iran and Turkey should prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence.
This cooperation between Shia Muslims in Iran and Sunni Muslims in Turkey marks a change in their usually chilly diplomacy, indicating that the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq has brought these two countries together. Both Iran and Turkey have significant Kurdish minorities, so by smothering the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq, they may be preventing the rise of future Kurdish independence movements in their own nations.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it is against the interests of all parties to cut off oil from the Kurdish region. Although Russia has maintained warm relations with Iran and Turkey – transferring arms to both countries – Russia still has significant oil interests in Kurdistan.
LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, with James Fox and Diego Lynch
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