TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - Islamic State militants briefly took control of a northern Iraqi village on Thursday, forcing out police and pro-government fighters and underlining the fragility of the state’s hold on the territory.
The army retook Tal Kusaiba hours later in a counter- attack, though one senior official said militants were still holed up inside some houses in the predominately Sunni village, around 35 km (20 miles) east of Tikrit.
The operation shows “they can still mount attacks and control places there,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who has worked with the government.
The early-morning attacks on Tal Kusaiba killed the police station chief and his guard along with nine fighters from a powerful Shi’ite militia and Sunni tribal force, police and tribal sources in nearby Alam said.
The insurgents seized the police station and other government buildings before the army, supported by Iraqi air strikes as well as counter-terrorism forces and Badr militia fighters, forced them out, said Laith Hameed, a senior official in Alam said.
Pro-government forces have been pushing north along the Tigris River for nearly a year, retaking Tikrit from Islamic State fighters in April and then driving them out of Baiji, 40 km (25 miles) further north, in October.
Baghdad aims to maintain the momentum and continue north to recapture the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul later this year. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said retaking the largest city under Islamic State control would signal the end of the group’s presence in Iraq.
Yet security forces’ control over territory outside major population centers has proven more difficult to maintain. An attack this far south highlights the group’s continued reach, especially in rural areas, even after the government claimed victory last month in the western city of Ramadi.
“Daesh exploited a weak spot in the Himrin (mountain) area that is not under control of the (Iraqi) forces and attacked Kusaiba village with 10 vehicles, including Humvees,” said Hameed, the Alam official, using an acronym for Islamic State.
U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria, said the insurgents regularly launched such “harassing attacks”.
“It’s meant to try to slow the momentum of the Iraqi forces,” he said.
The militants, who seized swaths of northern and western Iraq in 2014, claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on Monday in Baghdad and Diyala that killed more than 40 people. Officials said the assaults were meant to detract from government advances in Ramadi and distract the security forces.
Additional reporting by Saif Hameed in Baghdad; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Andrew Heavens