Bomber kills two Iraq generals as IS advances in Syria
A suicide bomber killed two Iraqi generals on Thursday in Anbar province, a key battleground against the Islamic State group, as the jihadists made gains in northern Syria.
IS overran large areas of Iraq in 2014 and seized Anbar capital Ramadi earlier this year. It also controls major territory in neighbouring Syria, where it has thrived amid a bloody civil war.
The suicide bomber in an explosives-rigged vehicle struck in the Al-Jaraishi area north of Ramadi as Iraqi forces advanced, military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told AFP.
He said the attack killed the deputy head of the Anbar Operations Command, Staff Major General Abdulrahman Abu Raghif, and 10th Division commander Staff Brigadier General Safin Abdulmajid.
A statement from the Joint Operations Command confirmed the deaths of the two officers along with an unspecified number of other “heroic martyrs”.
The death or injury of senior Iraqi officers during battles against IS is a persistent problem for the country.
Two heads of the Anbar Operations Command have been wounded this year, while the commanders of a division and a brigade were killed in Anbar in April. The province’s governor was wounded in 2014.
Senior army and police commanders have also been killed in other Iraqi provinces since IS launched its devastating offensive in June 2014, sweeping security forces aside.
Baghdad’s forces have managed to regain significant territory in two provinces north of the capital, but much of western Iraq, including Anbar, remains outside government control.
In Syria, IS fighters seized five villages from rebel forces overnight in the northern province of Aleppo and entered the outskirts of a key opposition bastion there, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The jihadist group seized three villages near the town of Marea and entered its southern outskirts, and took another two villages further north in Aleppo province, near the border with Turkey, it said.
Those two villages were previously controlled by Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which withdrew from them after Turkey and the United States announced plans to cooperate on an IS-free zone in the area.
Marea is one of the most significant rebel-held towns in northern Aleppo and lies on a key supply route running to the Turkish border.
IS has targeted the town for months, seeking to expand westwards from territory it already holds in Aleppo province.
The Observatory said there were reports of dozens of rebel casualties in the fighting, but it had no immediate toll.
Activists and medical organisations said this week they had documented an alleged chemical weapons attack, possibly involving mustard gas, on the town last Friday. Activists accused IS of being behind the attack.
The IS advances come despite an agreement between Turkey and the United States to work on the establishment of an IS-free zone in northern Aleppo.
The plan has backing from some rebel forces on the ground, including the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham movement, which Washington does not work with.
But Al-Nusra has rejected the proposal, despite its opposition to IS, and earlier this month withdrew from its front lines against its jihadist rival in Aleppo in order to avoid cooperating with the plan.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said that a new 48-hour truce between regime forces and rebels entered into force in three towns on Thursday.
The new two-day truce follows a similar ceasefire earlier this month for the towns that was intended to lead to a broad agreement to end the fighting in Zabadani and the blockade of Fuaa and Kafraya.
Pro-regime forces, including Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, launched an offensive to seize Zabadani from rebel groups early last month.
The town is the last rebel-held bastion in the area along the border with Lebanon and has been subjected to massive aerial bombardment since the operation began.
More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests.