ISIS militants pushed through a gap in the Iraqi army frontline on Thursday to capture a northern village, local sources said, demonstrating the group’s continued reach after a major defeat in the west, Reuters reported.
The development took place as France’s defense chief described on Thursday the group as retreating and that French warplanes targeted a communications center of the militant group near the Iraqi city of Mosul as part of a string of airstrikes this week.
The dawn attacks on Tal Kusaiba, around 35 km (20 miles) east of Tikrit, killed the police station chief and five Shiite militia fighters, police and tribal sources in nearby Alam said.
Pro-government forces have been pushing north along the Tigris River for nearly a year, retaking Tikrit from ISIS fighters in April and then driving them out of Baiji, 40 km (25 miles) further north, in October. They hope to maintain the momentum and continue north to recapture ISIS stronghold of Mosul.
Security forces’ control over territory outside major population centers can be more difficult to maintain. An attack this far south highlights the group’s continued reach, especially in rural areas, even after the government claimed victory last month in the western city of Ramadi.
“Daesh exploited a weak spot in the Himrin (mountain) area that is not under control of the (Iraqi) forces and attacked Kusaiba village with 10 vehicles, including Humvees,” said Laith Hameed, a senior official in Alam, using an acronym for ISIS.
The insurgents seized the police station and other government buildings, he added.
Iraq’s military began conducting air strikes against ISIS positions in the village, while security forces were regrouping in Alam to mount a counterattack, the sources said.
The militants, who seized swaths of northern and western Iraq in 2014, claimed suicide attacks on Monday in Baghdad and Diyala that killed more than 40 people, which officials described as a response to their losses in Ramadi.
France says ISIS retreating
Members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS will meet in Paris next week to reinforce efforts against the group, France’s defence minister said on Thursday, adding that the militants were clearly retreating in Iraq.
France was the first country to join U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq. Since the Paris attacks by ISIS in November, it has stepped up its aerial bombing campaign of the group, including in Syria, contributing about 20 percent of coalition strikes.
“We struck last night in Mosul on a Daesh telecommunications center, a propaganda center. What we can say today is that Daesh is retreating in Iraq,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said on BFM TV, referring to the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The minister said he would host his U.S., British and German counterparts in Paris next week to refine strategy and discuss tactics.
“We’ll see how we can intensify our efforts in Iraq and Syria,” he said, adding that ISIS was on the back foot in Iraq and that French jets had struck seven times since Monday.
He said that at some point the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces supported by the coalition would need to launch the battle for Mosul, the largest city held by ISIS in Iraq.
“It’s very complicated. We will have to ensure the Iraqi and Kurdish forces are sufficiently battle-hardened to lead this battle,” Le Drian said.
French officials have this week been critical of Russian strikes in Syria with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saying Moscow had to immediately stop bombing civilians, something that was hindering efforts to hold peace talks later this month.
“If the principle Russian objective is to fight ISIS, then they must first hit ISIS. At the moment that is not the case, and there is a very strong tendency for it to strike rebels, the moderate opposition fighting (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad,” he said.