Baghdad: Bolstered by US airstrikes, Iraqi ground forces have recaptured the western town of Rutba after Islamic State fighters who had occupied the town for nearly two years fled or put up only light resistance, US military officers said today.
Army Lt Gen Sean MacFarland, the top US commander in Baghdad, told reporters Friday that it was an important victory for the Iraqi security forces, even though Rutba is a small town.
MacFarland said that taking Rutba from IS will allow the reopening of the main road from Amman to Baghdad, which he said is a significant economic lifeline for Iraq.
“Although it’s a small town, it’s an important success for the Iraqi security forces,” he said.
Another US officer, Marine Brig. Gen. Bill Mullen, said in a separate interview that the decisive action in Rutba was US airstrikes outside the town that seemed to persuade the Islamic State fighters to flee rather than put up substantial resistance.
He said there were an estimated “couple of hundred” IS fighters in Rutba prior to the Iraqi assault and that by the time the Iraqis arrived all but about 30 had fled north to the city of al-Qaim or across the border into Syria.
Col Steve Warren, spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad, said the Iraqis had sent about 1,000 troops to Rutba.
They were a combination of federal police, Sunni tribal fighters, border security forces and members of the Counter-Terrorism Force.
Warren said the Islamic State had used Rutba as a staging area for weaponry and foreign fighters flowing into Iraq. Beyond the recapturing of Rutba, U.S. officials were focused mainly on preparing Iraqi security forces for an assault on Mosul, which is the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Iraq.
MacFarland said the US is pushing the Iraqis to prepare for that step but does not want to move faster than is prudent, given the Iraqis’ military and political limitations.
“We don’t want to rush them out there and achieve fragile victories,” MacFarland told a small group of reporters traveling with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who was in Iraq today to consult with MacFarland and other US commanders. “We want to make sure that their victories are irreversible.”
Asked whether he believes the assault phase of the Mosul operation will be launched before the end of this year, MacFarland said, “I really am reluctant to make predictions.” (AP)