Iraqi Sunni men who defected from ISIL to join Iraq government forces take position in Amriyat Al Fallujah, in Iraq’s Anbar province, on May 26, 2015. Haidar Hamdani/AFP Photo
Baghdad // Iraqi forces seized two districts of Ramadi yesterday as they prepared to retake the city from ISIL.
The extremist group also came under pressure in neighbouring Syria, where Kurdish fighters expelled the extremists from more than a dozen Christian villages in the north-east.
Iraqi forces fought ISIL militants on the southern outskirts of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province which the extremists seized on May 17.
They moved into the districts of Taesh and Humeyrah and also entered the Anbar university compound, an army colonel said.
“Iraqi security and Hashed forces took control of both neighbourhoods. They also managed to enter the university but have yet to liberate it,” he said.
Hashed Al Shaabi is an umbrella group for mostly Shiite militias that the government called in after Ramadi fell to ISIL.
The operation launched on Tuesday involved 4,000 men, including security forces, heading south from Salaheddin province to cut ISIL supply routes to Anbar.
The extremists control most of the province and the government holds isolated pockets.
In Syria, the other half of ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate, Kurdish forces retook Assyrian Christian villages the group had seized earlier this year, a monitor said.
“Following a 10-day offensive, Kurdish fighters took control early this week of 14 Assyrian villages that ISIL had controlled since February,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
An Assyrian rights activist said the counteroffensive in the north-eastern province of Hasakeh was made possible by an intensive campaign of airstrikes by the US-led coalition against ISIL.
The Observatory said ISIL shot dead at least 20 men in the ruins of Syria’s ancient city Palmyra yesterday after accusing them of fighting for the government.
Mr Abdel Rahman said the men were murdered in front of a crowd gathered in Palmyra’s Roman theatre.
“ISIL gathered a lot of people there on purpose, to show their force on the ground,” he said.
The killings, if confirmed, could signal the start of “the group’s barbarism and savagery against the ancient monuments of Palmyra”, Syria’s director of antiquities, Mamoun Abdulkarim, said.
“Using the Roman theatre to execute people proves that these people are against humanity,” he said.
ISIL seized Palmyra, including its Unesco world heritage site, on May 21, after a bloody assault that lasted nine days.
It was the first time the group has captured a large population centre directly from the Syrian military.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on information from sources inside Syria, said ISIL had since murdered at least 217 people, including 67 civilians, in and around the city.
Syria yesterday called for more coordination with Iraq to combat ISIL, which also seized a vital border crossing between the two countries last week.
Though Damascus and Baghdad share a close relationship with Iran, Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Mouallem’s comments indicated Damascus was not happy with the level of Iraqi cooperation in the fight against ISIL.
Both countries realised they had to fight together, Mr Al Mouallem said.
“But the coordination has not reached the threat level we are facing,” he said at press conference in Damascus with his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian.
Baghdad is coordinating with US forces to combat ISIL.
In Syria, US-led warplanes are carrying out an aerial campaign which they say is not coordinated with the Syrian military and has focused on areas outside of government control.
However Syria says it has been informed of attacks ahead of time and has criticised the US-led raids as ineffective, but has not opposed them.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters