Iraq on Tuesday announced the launch of a major military operation to drive the Islamic State from the western Anbar province and retake the Sunni heartland where the extremist group captured the provincial capital, Ramadi, earlier this month.
The operation is backed by Shiite militias and Sunni pro-government fighters, the Iraqi state TV reported, without providing further details. There was no indication of any immediate movements on the ground following the announcement.
The Islamic State seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier in May — a fall that marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists over the past months with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The operation comes just days after U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, criticized the Iraqi forces, saying their men fled the Islamic State advance on Ramadi without fighting back, leaving behind weapons and vehicles for the extremists.
But Baghdad defended its troops and quickly said military preparations were underway to launch a large-scale counteroffensive in Anbar, involving Iranian-backed Shiite militias. That possibility sparked fears of potential sectarian violence in the Sunni province, long the scene of protests and criticism against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
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