The Iraqi government claimed that its troops and Shiite Muslim militias captured a key Islamic State stronghold near Baghdad on Saturday in an operation to boost security for massive Islamic new year gatherings that apparently was overseen by an Iranian general.
The fall of the town of Jurf al-Sakhar _ which couldn’t be independently confirmed _ would be the first major success for Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who took power with U.S. support in September and only completed assembling his Shiite-dominated government last week.
“Our security forces and the heroes of the popular mobilization have achieved another victory in Jurf al-Sakhar,” Abadi wrote on his Facebook page, referring to the Shiite militias mobilized after the Iraqi army imploded in mid-June as the Islamic State overran the northern city of Mosul and stormed to the threshold of Baghdad.
The capture of Jurf al-Sakhar would bring under government control a hotbed of support for the Islamic State and its predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq, Sunni fanatics who view Shiites as apostates and have slaughtered thousands of them.
The Sunni-dominated area controls a network of roads on which the Islamic State and al Qaida in Iraq in the past routinely bombed and attacked Shiite pilgrims making their way from Baghdad to shrines in the sacred city of Karbala to mark the new Islamic year.
The new Islamic year began on Saturday for Sunnis. It starts on Sunday for Shiites, kicking off a 10-day period in which hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims _ including huge numbers of Iranians _ descend on shrines in Baghdad and Karbala.
The Obama administration hopes that Abadi’s new government will mend fences with Sunni leaders alienated by what they charged was persecution by the previous Shiite-dominated government, and persuade them to turn against the Islamic State.
But the Jurf al-Sakhar operation could end up bolstering Sunni support for the Islamic State by reconfirming for Sunni leaders Abadi’s dependence on Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have committed untold atrocities against Sunnis and operate outside of government control.
The fighting for Jurf al-Sakhar has raged intermittently since the Islamic State launched its offensive more than four months ago. The town of some 80,000 people lies in a Sunni-dominated region that U.S. troops dubbed the Triangle of Death during the 2003-11 occupation.
Thousands of Shiite militiamen converged on the area to join Iraqi troops and police for a massive push that began at dawn on Friday, said Naim al-Aboudi, a spokesman for Aseab Ahl al-Haq, the most powerful Shiite militia.
In addition to Aseab Ahl al-Haq, the operation involved fighters from two other Iranian-backed Shiite militias, the Badr Organization and Kata’eb Hezbollah, he told McClatchy.
“We’ve had great success up until now,” al-Aboudi said.
State-run television broadcast reports from the scene throughout the day.
Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias reportedly were accompanied by advisers from Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a paramilitary and intelligence contingent that reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie.
The operation apparently was overseen by the Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who has been shown meeting Iraqi Shiite militia commanders in multiple photographs posted on social networks.
One photograph posted on Twitter reportedly was taken in Babel province, where Jurf al-Sakhar is located, about 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. Suleimani was sitting with the top leaders of Aseab Ahl al-Haq, or The League of the Righteous.
Security and Iraqi militia sources confirmed the authenticity of the photos, although not the dates on which they were taken.
“That’s Hajj Qassem meeting with top commanders from Asaeb Ahl al-Haq,” said a Kurdish official who worked with the Iranians in a series of battles outside of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, and requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to a journalist. “I have no doubt that he is personally overseeing this operation because of the importance of the area with the coming pilgrimage.”
The offensive was launched from three directions and succeeded in capturing the city and villages on its southern, northern and western fringes, according to Aboudi.
“We were fighting hand-to-hand against our enemies without any help from the Americans, either on land or in the air,” Aboudi asserted, adding that the Iraqi Air Force provided air support.
Islamic State fighters booby-trapped houses with explosives and planted roadside bombs to hinder the advance of the Iraqi troops and Shiite militias, he said.
The newly installed interior minister, Mohammad Ghabban, issued a statement declaring “victory” against the Islamic State.
“The great accomplishment was due to troops from the Ministry of Defense and Interior and the volunteers and the coordination among them,” said Ghabban, the former No. 2 official of the Badr Organization militia.
“This operation secured the road to Karbala for the pilgrims during Muharram and Ashoura,” said Ghabban, who added that the operation was led by senior Defense Ministry commanders. Ashoura marks the climax of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year.
Large numbers of Islamic State fighters were killed and captured, he said, without elaborating.
Aircraft of the U.S.-led international coalition provided “air cover in some locations,” but didn’t actually launch any strikes, he said.
The offensive came at a time when progress against the Islamic State had been floundering in nearby Anbar Province, which has seen a string of military bases and population centers west of Baghdad fall under the extremists’ control.
The road network controlled by Jurf al-Sakhar links southern Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated south with areas of heavy fighting in Anbar.
U.S. Central Command announced Saturday that U.S. aircraft conducted 22 air strikes on Islamic State targets on Friday and Saturday, including a number in Anbar.
At least one dozen took place in northern Iraq, where Kurdish fighters allied with the government have been fending off an Islamic State offensive aimed at regaining control of the Mosul Dam, which provides electricity and water for crops.
Kurdish forces announced Saturday that they’d thwarted the Islamic State offensive, which began last week, and taken Zumar, a town that controls the approaches to the dam.
McClatchy special correspondent Prothero reported from Irbil, Iraq.