BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes reached the centre of the western town of Hit, dislodging Islamic State militants and evacuating thousands of civilians, state television said on Friday.
A local commander said the pro-government forces had routed the militants from their stronghold in Hit, which had a pre-war population of nearly 100,000, but fighting was still going on.
“We are still pursuing them. They have abandoned their families and fled,” the commander said in a live broadcast. “Within days, God willing, Iraqis will rejoice at the complete liberation of Anbar province”, where Hit is located.
The recapture of Hit, strategically located on the Euphrates River near Ain al-Asad air base where several hundred U.S. forces are training Iraqi army troops, would roll back Islamic State further west towards the Syrian border.
Baghdad has had success in pushing back the militants in recent months and has pledged to retake the northern city of Mosul later this year, though an offensive billed as the first phase of that campaign was put on hold this week.
The government forces’ control of Hit appeared incomplete and fragile on Friday. One of the commanders said the insurgents, who have planted explosives in roads, cars and buildings, had tried to retake a main street but were repelled.
A coalition official said earlier this week that up to 300 Islamic State fighters based in Hit had built formidable defensive perimeters and integrated effectively into the terrain.
The counter-terrorism forces, which have led the military’s offensive in Anbar for months, helped more than 10,000 civilians leave Hit in recent days, the commanders said. State television broadcast images of men, women and children carrying belongings and waving white flags as they walked out of the town.
The jihadists have regularly used civilians as human shields, a tactic aimed at slowing the advance of Iraqi forces and complicating air strikes essential to the ground advance.
Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence