Iraq army seizes key airbase from ISIS in preparation for 'liberation of Mosul'

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (centre) poses for a picture with army generals and members of the counter-terrorism forces in the capital Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (centre) poses for a picture with army generals and members of the counter-terrorism forces in the capital Baghdad. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraqi forces have captured a key airbase from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group that can serve as a launchpad for retaking the terrorist-held city of Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday.

The Qayyarah airbase in the Tigris valley 60 kilometres south of Mosul would be "an important base for the liberation of Mosul", Abadi said in a statement.

He called for the people of Iraq's northwestern Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, to "prepare for the liberation of their cities".

Iraq's Joint Operations Command said two army divisions and members of the country's counter-terrorism forces took the base with air support from a US-led international coalition.

Security sources said extremists had fled towards Mosul after the base was taken.

An officer taking part in the operation said bomb disposal teams were removing booby traps and mines left behind by ISIS fighters.

No further details were immediately available on the scale of fighting for the base.

At the end of last month, Iraqi forces recaptured Fallujah, a city 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, in a major setback for ISIS.

That focused attention on the battle to remove ISIS from the northwest of the country.

In recent months, ISIS has lost significant parts of the territory north and west of Baghdad which it seized in 2014.

The fighting to get into Fallujah was initially fierce, particularly on the southern side, and Iraqi forces were supported by more than 100 US-led coalition air strikes.

On June 26, Abadi stood outside a hospital in Fallujah and vowed that the Iraqi flag would soon be raised over Mosul.

In his statement on Saturday, he said government forces had advanced 100 kilometres in the past few days.

"This is important revenge against the terrorist gangs, which we will crush and cleanse from all of our land very soon," he said.

Rights groups have raised concerns about alleged abuses carried out by Iraqi forces during the fight for Fallujah, including executions of civilians.

Human Rights Watch called on the government on Thursday to be transparent about an enquiry into the alleged abuses, which it said was "mired in secrecy".

More than 80,000 people have been displaced since the start of the Fallujah offensive, bringing to more than 3.3 million the number of Iraqis forced from their homes by conflict since the start of 2014.

The Sunni extremist group has responded to its battlefield setbacks by hitting back against civilians, particularly Shiites.

Experts have warned there may be more bombings as the extremists continue to lose ground.

ISIS said it had carried out an attack on a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad that started Thursday evening and killed 30 people.

That came just days after a devastating bombing in the capital that killed 292 people.