Iraqi Forces Launch Push to Retake Area North of Baghdad

March 1, 2016 Updated: March 1, 2016

BAGHDAD—Backed by paramilitary forces and aerial support, Iraqi troops on Tuesday launched a new push to retake a key area north of the capital, Baghdad, and dislodge ISIS extremists from there, officials said.

The operation came as a group of suicide bombers targeted a military headquarters in Haditha in western Iraq, killing eight officers on Tuesday. ISIS group later claimed responsibility for the attack in an online statement.

According to a statement by the Joint Operations Command, the “new offensive” began at dawn in an agricultural area northwest of the city of Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, with the aim to cut ISIS supply lines and to tighten the grip around the ISIS-held northern city of Mosul.

The command says paramilitary forces, mostly Shiite militias, and the Iraqi air force were backing the push on the area, called Jazerat Samarra. The statement did not say if the U.S.-led international coalition was involved in the operation.

Controlling the Jazerat Samarra area will not only restrict ISIS extremists’ movements between the three provinces in the region, but will also be essential for future operations to retake parts of Anbar province and Mosul, said Sabah al-Numan, the spokesman of the counter-terrorism forces.

Al-Numan told The Associated Press that two vehicles loaded with militants were bombed on Tuesday, and that the security forces managed to hit a would-be suicide car bomber before he reached his target.

The offensive comes on the heels of two massive bombings in as many days by the ISIS group in the area — in the town of Muqdadiyah and in Baghdad — that killed at least 110 people.

Shiite lawmaker and spokesman for the paramilitary forces, Ahmed al-Asadi, said the offensive “is in retaliation for the blood of our martyrs and to annihilate the terrorist gangs that have wreaked havoc.”

Meanwhile, four suicide bombers disguised in army uniform struck at dawn at the military headquarters in the city of Haditha, 240 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Baghdad, killing eight troops, including a local army commander, councilman Khalid Salman told the AP.

One of the bombers first attacked the gate of the building, then the others blew up themselves up when people gathered at the scene to help the victims. Salman said eight soldiers were also wounded in the attack.

In online statements, ISIS group claimed responsibility for the attack, but said it was carried out by two bombers, who were identified as Syrians. AP could not immediately verify the authenticity of the statements, issued on different websites, but its language and phrasing is consistent with past claims of responsibility.

Also Tuesday, separate attacks in and around Baghdad killed at least 13 people and wounded 31 others, police and health officials said.

In one attack, militants broke into the house of a solider in the town of Youssifiyah, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Iraqi capital, killing his wife and two children, aged seven and five years old, a police officer said. The solider was critically wounded, he added.

In the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad, a bomb struck a Shiite militia patrol, killing two and wounding four, the same police officer said. And eight civilians were killed and 26 others wounded in separate bombs attacks against commercial areas in Baghdad on Tuesday, the police said.

Medical officials confirmed casualty numbers. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

ISIS still controls much of northern and western Iraq, but has been driven back in recent months in some areas, such as the cities of Ramadi and Tikrit. The government last month declared the western city of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, “fully liberated” after it had been captured by ISIS last year.

Iraqi ground offensives — despite heavy backing from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes — have been slow in scoring key victories against the ISIS. A campaign to retake Mosul, the main city held by ISIS in Iraq, has long been believed to be imminent but has not taken off the ground yet.