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Jihadists pushed back in Iraq, seize key Syria airport

Kurdish peshmerga forces supported by Iraqi air strikes pushed back jihadist fighters in northern Iraq on Monday, even as the militants overran a key military airport in neighbouring Syria.

KHANAQIN: Kurdish peshmerga forces supported by Iraqi air strikes pushed back jihadist fighters in northern Iraq on Monday (Aug 25), even as the militants overran a key military airport in neighbouring Syria.

The limited advances come as Iraq struggles to regain significant parts of the country after a lightning militant offensive led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group seized second city Mosul in June and swept through the country's Sunni heartland, as security forces fled. The jihadist fighters have been bombarded since August 8 by US air strikes, allowing the peshmerga to claw back some lost territory, but the campaign has so far been limited to northern Iraq.

On Monday, the peshmerga wrested control of three villages from the jihadists in the Jalawla area in the central province of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, a Kurdish brigadier general said. They also seized a main road used by the militants to transport fighters and supplies, and were close to sealing off all entrances to the town of Jalawla itself, which they have sought to recapture for weeks, the officer said.

"Jalawla is strategic because it is a gateway to Baghdad," Shirko Merwais, a senior Kurdish political party official in nearby Khanaqin, told AFP. Iraq "is carrying out air strikes and the peshmerga ... are fighting on the ground," he said, adding that "in the beginning, coordination between the peshmerga and the Iraqi government was poor, but now, after the danger posed by (IS) grew, it has become much better."

Kurdish troops aided by Iraqi strikes also repelled two attacks by militants on Tuz Khurmatu, farther north, while others retook a northern area called Qaraj on Sunday.


In neighbouring Syria, where IS has also overrun large areas, the jihadists on Sunday won a bloody battle for the Tabqa military airport, the last stronghold of the Damascus regime in the northern province of Raqa, a monitoring group and state media said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 346 jihadists and almost 200 Syrian troops had been killed in the six-day battle for the airport.

The victory gives the IS jihadists full control of Raqa, the heartland of the "caliphate" they have declared in contiguous territory larger than the size of Britain they have seized in Iraq and Syria. Western powers fear the "caliphate" - a successor state to historic Muslim empires - could become a launchpad for a new round of global terror attacks.

The fears were exacerbated by grisly IS beheading of American journalist James Foley who was abducted in Syria. In a video released online, a masked black-clad militant said Foley was killed in revenge for US air strikes against IS.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Sunday urged greater support from the international community against the militants. Iraq "needs help and support from everybody ... all the forces against terrorism," Zebari said.

Washington has ramped up its rhetoric following the beheading, calling it "a terrorist attack against our country" and said operations against the group in Syria may also be necessary. The US has in the past two weeks launched more than 90 air strikes against IS jihadists in Iraq, helping Iraqi forces to regain control of Mosul Dam, the country's largest.

On Sunday, US Vice President Joe Biden pledged that such military assistance would continue, in a phone call with Kurdish president Massud Barzani. "They agreed on the importance of continuing the historic cooperation underway between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces, which - with support from the United States and other partners - helped retake the strategic Mosul Dam," the White House said.

The IS onslaught has exacerbated already high sectarian tensions in Iraq.

On Friday, suspected Shiite militiamen launched an attack on a Sunni mosque in Diyala province, killing 70 people as they sprayed worshippers with machinegun fire, according to officers and a witness, although some sources blamed IS for the killings.

Dubbed a "massacre" by rights group Amnesty International, the attack threatens to increase anger among the Sunni Muslim minority with the Shiite-led government at a time when the anti-militant drive depends on their cooperation.