Tens of thousands of trapped Iraqi civilians have stalled an offensive to recapture a strategic town from ISIL with the military dropping pamphlets urging people to flee so a full assault can begin. Sabah al-Numan, a spokesman for Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces, said an operation was launched for the town of Heet – 140km west of Baghdad – on Thursday with heavy air strikes helping ground troops advance within 3km before being forced to stop.
Heet lies along an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant supply line linking its fighters in Iraq to those in Syria. Numan said the military made “a plan to evacuate these families” and leaflets were dropped over Heet indicating which roads can be used to flee.
The armed group has regularly used civilians as human shields – a tactic aimed at slowing the movement of Iraqi forces and complicating air strikes essential to ground operations. The advance was not without resistance as eight Iraqi soldiers were killed on Thursday after an ISIL suicide car bomber detonated near an army convoy. – backed by army troops and US-led coalition air strikes – moved on the town in western Anbar province that has been for months under the control of ISIL, also known as ISIS.
Retaking Heet – strategically located on the Euphrates River near the Ain al-Asad airbase, where several hundred US forces are training Iraqi troops – would push ISIL further west towards the Syrian border, cutting a connection to the northern town of Samarra while leaving Fallujah as the group’s only stronghold near the capital, Baghdad. Iraq has had success in pushing back ISIL fighters in recent months, and has pledged to retake the northern city of Mosul later this year, but progress has often been fitful.