Iraq says it retakes western town of Rutba from Islamic State

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s military said on Thursday it had retaken the remote western town of Rutba from Islamic State in an operation launched this week to cut off the militants’ supply route to neighboring Syria.

Iraqi soldiers work at a radio station at Makhmour base, Iraq, April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo

The military’s joint operations command said in a statement the district, 360 km (225 miles) west of Baghdad, had been “completely liberated” without clarifying what that meant. It said Iraqi forces had raised flags above some buildings, without specifying that they controlled the main government complex.

The military has pushed the jihadists out of much of the northern and western territories they seized in 2014, but the group still controls large areas and key cities including Mosul, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year as part of a U.S.-backed strategy to defeat the group.

In addition to its linkage to Syria, Rutba was considered an important “support zone” which Islamic State was using to stage operations into battle areas further north and east.

Counter-terrorism forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, had entered the town from the south on Tuesday and taken control of al-Intisar district.

Major General Hadi Razij, head of Anbar police, said elite commandos had attacked from the south while police, tribal fighters and the Iraqi army pushed from the north.

“We managed to liberate Rutba district, eliminating many suicide bombers and car bombs,” he told state television.

Razij said troops had also reached Camp Korean Village, a former U.S. military base about 40 km further west toward the border, and continued to clear the international highway.

Coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren has said Islamic State was believed to maintain up to “several hundred” fighters in Rutba at any given time.

On Thursday, he described resistance there as “moderate to light” but said the Iraqis were still clearing enemy forces. Many of the militants likely fled before the offensive began, Warren added, as the advancing forces would have been easy to detect.

Reporting by Saif Hameed and Stephen Kalin; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams