Special-forces raids on an Islamic State stronghold in northern Iraq are under way before a planned offensive to retake Mosul, the largest centre under the group’s control, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker said.
Several attacks behind Islamic State lines around Hawija, 210 kilometres (130 miles) north of Baghdad, were carried out in recent weeks, Salim al-Jabouri told Reuters on Thursday.
Dubai-based al-Hadath and Iraqi media have reported at least half a dozen raids since late December, led by US special forces.
The US said last month it was deploying a new force of around 100 special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against Islamic State there and in neighbouring Syria, without providing details.
But US Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the international coalition bombing Islamic State, this week rejected the media reports, calling them “Iranian disinformation” aimed at distracting from the Iraqi military’s “success” against Islamic State elsewhere.
He told Reuters coalition forces in Iraq have not operated on the ground since October, when US special forces rescued 69 Iraqis in a raid in Hawija that killed one US commando.
Special operations in Hawija “have been repeated a second and third time ... These operations are bearing fruit,” said Jabouri, Iraq’s senior Sunni Arab official. “They eliminate the terrorists and free innocents, and for us it represents a positive development.”
Jabouri said the raids were carried out “from time to time” and “supported by Iraqi forces” but did not specify whether the United States played a role or how many had occurred.
The raids are “not direct ground attacks; they are operations targeting the dens of Daesh in important and sensitive areas,” Jabouri said, using an Arabic acronym for the group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
He said they were not enough to get rid of Islamic State but “are dealing them strong blows”.
He said the raids were related to Baghdad’s goal of retaking Mosul, the city 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad where Islamic State declared its intention to establish a caliphate stretching across the border with Syria.
Strategically located east of the road from Baghdad to Mosul and near the Kurdish-held oil region of Kirkuk, Hawija became an Islamic State stronghold when the ultra-hardline Sunni militants swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said has vowed to retake Mosul, this year as a “fatal and final blow” to Islamic State militants in Iraq.