BAGHDAD: The Iraqi army retook the last town in the country still held by the militant Islamic State (IS) group on Friday as its self-proclaimed “caliphate” faced collapse on both sides of the border with Syria.
The lightning recapture of the small Euphrates valley town of Rawa in an offensive launched at dawn came as the militants were also under attack for a second day in the last town they still hold in Syria, Albu Kamal just over the frontier.
IS has lost 95 per cent of the cross-border “caliphate” it declared in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the US-led coalition fighting it said on Wednesday.
Its losses include all of its major bastions, virtually confining it to pockets of countryside.
Government troops and paramilitary units “liberated the whole of Rawa and raised the Iraqi flag on all of its official buildings,” General Abdelamir Yarallah of Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said in a statement.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the town’s “liberation in record time” and said troops would now “conduct search operations in the desert to secure the border with Syria”.
“Militarily, IS has been defeated but we are going to hunt down its remnants to eradicate its presence,” said JOC spokesman General Yahya Rassoul.
Iraqi IS specialist Hisham al-Hashemi said that after their loss of Rawa, the militants no longer exercised any real military or administrative power.
Rawa was bypassed in an offensive by the Iraqi army that resulted in the recapture of the strategically important border town of Al-Qaim earlier this month.
The stretch of Euphrates valley abutting the border with Syria has long been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgency, first against US-led troops after the invasion of 2003 and then against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The porous frontier became a magnet for foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, which Baghdad accused of turning a blind eye, and a key smuggling route for arms and illicit goods.