Hashd al-Shaabi advance near Sharqat on Friday. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Peshmerga forces have assisted Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces to reach the bridge of Zarga village, from where they will link up their troops with other Iraqi armed forces to further bolster the offensive to oust ISIS from the Hawija pocket.
A Hashd al-Shaabi commander told Rudaw that their aim is to raid Zarga area and the Hamrin mountain range. Zarga is on the border of the Kirkuk and Salahaddin governorates, about 25 kilometers west of Tuz Khurmatu and 80 kilometers south of Hawija town.
The commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, revealed there were very few ISIS members in the areas.
"There are even women among them. We are with the Peshmerga. They are here to help us," he said.
A Peshmerga on the frontlines next to the Hashd forces confirmed coordination between them and Hashd in the area.
"Our coordination with the Hashd al-Shaabi is very good. Upon orders from our superiors... we have helped and opened doors and come along with them to the Zarga bridge," said the Peshmerga, who also did not want to be named.
Anything they need, "we will assist them," he said.
Advances on ISIS continue on four fronts: from Amirli, Zanjali, the Tikrit-Tuz Khurmatu line, and the Hamrin Mountains.
It was on the Tikrit-Khurmatu front that the Peshmerga assisted the Hashd to reach Zarga Bridge.
Commander of Iraq's special forces Abdul Amir Yaralla announced a wide operation to liberate the areas of al-Namil and Zuwiya west of the Tigris River in the first phase of Hawija liberation operation.
“Federal police units, and the Rapid Response force, and Brigades 3, 4, 5, 10 of the Hashd al-Shaabi freed the villages of Tal Bir, Tal, Hawa, Akaraa, Salih Yousif, Um Kahwa and others as a second phase of the Hawija operation," read a Joint Operations Command statement on Saturday
There have been concerns expressed about Hashd-Peshmerga coordination as the Hawija operation enters its third day. Iraqi security forces along with Hashd al-Shaabi began the operation at dawn on Thursday.
Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, told Rudaw on Thursday that they do not take part in the operation. He said that they will only keep their defensive lines strong, and will not allow the ISIS militants to infiltrate Peshmerga lines.
As the operation kicked off, the spokesperson for the US-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS explained that the Kurdistan Region's referendum has taken "focus" away from the fight against ISIS.
"The focus has to be on the fight against ISIS like a laser beam, and the discussions and the things that have gone on with the referendum have taken efforts and focus to not just to fighting ISIS but to this referendum as well," said Coalition Spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon on Thursday, acknowledging that the political matters were largely a State Department issue.
"ISIS is a threat to the region — to both Iraqis and Kurds, so that is where the focus needs to be," Dillon added.
At the same press conference, Yahya Rasul, spokesperson for Iraq's Joint Operations Command, also said the “cooperation" between the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces continues on a larger scale, but that at the current first stage of the Hawija offensive it is the Iraqi units, including the Hashd that are taking part.
Peshmerga have manned four fronts around the Hawija pocket. On Friday, Iraqi security forces announced they had retaken the town of Sharqat, west of Hawija. Its Joint Operations Command announced many villages to the east of the Tigris and north of Hawija have been retaken; however, they were still facing confrontation southwest of Hawija on the west bank of the Tigris.
On Saturday in Baghdad, the Ministry of Defense announced their armed forces seized a huge cache of weapons and suicide vests from ISIS sleeper cells in Baghdad governorate.