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Iraq launches offensive to retake Hawija from 'Islamic State'

Iraq has launched a major operation to retake Hawija, one of the last "Islamic State" strongholds in the country. Plans to oust the militants have been complicated by a referendum on Kurdish independence due next week.

Iraqi forces launched an offensive at the crack of dawn on Thursday to win back the town of Hawija, an IS bastion near the oil city of Kirkuk.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the latest offensive and predicted another victory against the depleted militant group.

"At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Daesh's terrorist groups," Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Hawija, 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad, and a stretch of land along the Syrian border, west of the Iraqi capital, are the last pockets of territory held by the self-styled Islamic State in the country.

Its territory, which it calls a "caliphate," has been shrinking fast in both Iraq and Syria over the past few months in the face of offensive launched by local forces backed by the US and Russia.

Iraqi forces declared victory over the extremists in Mosul in July and in the western town of Tal Afar the following month.

Read more:'Islamic State': Will it survive a post-caliphate future?

A US-led international coalition is providing air support to the Iraqi forces.

The Islamic State group "now faces the mighty [Iraqi security forces in] the last two areas where they hold any territory in Iraq," US-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said Thursday morning in a statement posted on Twitter.

Kurdish referendum

The offensive to retake Hawija comes just days ahead of a referendum on Kurdish independence due to be held in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk.

Hawija is part of the Kirkuk province, a disputed territory between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.

Read more:Iraqi Kurds split over Kurdish independence vote

Tensions have risen in the area with Kurdish leaders pressing ahead with the September 25 referendum, which Abadi considers "anti-constitutional." The prime minister has called on the Kurdish leaders to cancel it, while the country's Supreme Court has ordered the suspension of the vote. 

It wasn't clear it the referendum plans would be affected by the offensive on Hawija, which is likely to displace many residents.

The United Nations has said up to 85,000 people could be forced to flee the fighting.

ap/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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