The Iraqi military, backed by US airstrikes and supported by Iranian-sponsored Shia militias, retaken control of the town of Shirqat, which has been held by the Islamic State for more than two years. Iraqi forces must hold Shirqat in order to secure its supply lines south of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.
According to Reuters, the town has been “surrounded by Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias allied to the government” for several months. However, the militias have not entered the town. Iraqi troops have seized “control of the mayor’s office, the municipal building and the hospital” in the town’s center, and have encountered minimal resistance from the Islamic State. The Iraqi military later said it gained complete control of Shirqat.
The US military has launched seven airstrikes near Shirqat over the past several days. On Sept. 20, “three strikes engaged two ISIL [Islamic State] tactical units and destroyed six vehicles, six watercraft, two VBIEDs, and a heavy machine gun,” US Central Command, or CENTCOM, announced. On Sept. 21, “four strikes engaged three ISIL tactical units and destroyed 38 vehicles, four watercraft, and a land bridge; damaged a culvert entrance; and suppressed a tactical unit.”
Shirqat is located on the Euphrates River about 70 miles south of Mosul, and straddles Route 1, one of two main arteries that connect Mosul with Baghdad. Shirqat is also just south of Qarrayah and the nearby Qayyarah Airfiled West, or Q-West, which Iraqi forces wrested from Islamic State control in mid-July.
The Islamic State has placed key assets near Shirqat to defend the town. In mid-July, the Islamic State announced that its top military commander, Omar al Shishani, was killed in an airstrike in Shirqat. Shishani led a mobile task force that participated in key battles in both Iraq and Syria.
The US military has deployed hundreds of troops at Q-West to support Iraqi operations in the area. [See LWJ report, Iraqi forces retake Q-West airbase south of Mosul.] The Islamic State has launched mortar and rocket attacks against US forces based at Q-West, and is thought to have recently fired “a shell with mustard agent,” according to CNN. Initial test results are inconclusive, and further testing is being done. US officials have told CNN that the “the agent had ‘low purity’ and was ‘poorly weaponized.'”
The Islamic State has pursued a chemical weapons program in both Iraq and Syria, which has been targeted by the US. In January 2015, US forces killed Abu Malik, an Islamic State “chemical weapons engineer,” in an airstrike near Mosul. On Sept. 14, US warplanes targeted “an ISIL chemical weapons storage facility and destroyed a rocket system, a rocket rail, and a mortar system,” near the Iraqi town of Huwayjah, CENTCOM reported.
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