BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi forces said on Sunday they retook two towns north of Baghdad from Islamic State fighters, driving them from strongholds they had held for months and clearing a main road from the capital to Iran.
There was no independent confirmation that the army, Shi‘ite militia and Kurdish peshmerga forces had completely retaken Jalawla and Saadiya, about 115 km (70 miles) northeast of Baghdad. Many residents fled the violence long ago.
At least 23 peshmerga and militia fighters were killed and dozens were wounded in Sunday’s fighting, medical and army sources said.
“We have liberated Jalawla and Saadiya,” said Mala Bakhtiar, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, speaking by phone from a nearby town. He estimated 50 Islamic State fighters may have been killed out of a force of 400.
Iraq’s Shi‘ite-led government, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has been trying to push back the Islamic State since it swept through mainly Sunni Muslim provinces of northern Iraq in June, meeting virtually no resistance.
Last week the army broke a months-long siege of the country’s largest refinery north of Baghdad, but Islamic State fighters continue to take territory in the western province of Anbar, which shares borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The militants have been fighting in the last two days to take full control of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi. On Sunday, Iraqi and foreign jets struck Islamic State fighters near central Ramadi, provincial council member Mahmoud Ahmed Khalaf told Reuters. Clashes continued in the city, he said.
Jalawla and Saadiya are located in Diyala province which is mainly under the control of the Baghdad government forces and Kurdish peshmerga.
Recapturing the towns would help secure the Kurdish-controlled towns of Kalar and Khanaqin to the north as well as nearby dams and oil fields, peshmerga Secretary-General Jabbar Yawar said. It would also allow the road to be reopened between Baghdad and Khanaqin, close to the Iranian border.
While the hardline Sunni Islamic State forces have not advanced into Baghdad, they hold a ring of towns around the mainly Shi‘ite capital and have claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Shi‘ite districts of the city.
A car bomb in the Shi‘ite town of Yousufiya, 30 km (20 miles) southeast of Baghdad, killed five people on Sunday, police and medics said. Two other bombs in towns near the capital killed four other people.
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Michael Georgy and Stephen Powell