HABBANIYAH, IRAQ (AFP) - Iraqi forces on Thursday (Oct 26) thrust into the last area controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in the country as they launched a push to wipe out remnants of the militants' self-styled caliphate.
The start of the keenly awaited offensive that the US-led coalition fighting ISIS has dubbed "the last big fight" of the campaign came even as Iraqi troops launched a new operation against the Kurds.
There had been fears the bitter dispute that has raged between the Baghdad government and Iraqi Kurdish leaders since they held a referendum for independence last month would hamper the battle against the militants.
But federal troops and allied paramilitary units pressed ahead with a threatened drive up the Euphrates valley towards the Syrian border in a bid to retake two Sunni Arab towns renowned as hotbeds of insurgency ever since the US-led invasion of 2003.
Iraqi forces have retaken more than 90 per cent of the territory ISIS seized in the country in 2014. The militants are now confined to a small stretch of the valley linked to territory in Syria where they are also battling to survive.
"The heroic legions are advancing into the last den of terrorism in Iraq to liberate Al-Qaim, Rawa and the surrounding villages and hamlets," Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said in a statement from neighbouring Iran where he is on a state visit.
"They will all return to the arms of the motherland thanks to the determination and endurance of our fighting heroes," he added.
"The people of ISIS have no choice but to die or surrender."
Regional operations commander General Qassem al-Mohammedi told AFP that government forces were advancing on four fronts - from the east, south-east, north and south.
He said that units of the federal police and the elite Counter-Terrorism Service as well as the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force were supporting the army.
Iraqi forces said that by early afternoon they had recaptured several military bases southeast of Al-Qaim, including an airbase, that the fleeing jihadists had abandoned.
Crucially for an offensive in an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab region, Sunni tribal volunteers in the Hashed were heavily engaged alongside the Iran-trained Shi'ite militias that are its mainstay.
The US-led coalition said it had carried out some 15 strikes on ISIS targets in and around Al-Qaim and the town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side of the border.
Al-Qaim has been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgency for years.
US troops carried out repeated operations with names like Matador and Steel Curtain in 2005 to flush out Al-Qaeda militants.
Coalition commanders are convinced Al-Qaim will be ISIS' last stand in its ambitions of territorial control of the cross-border caliphate it proclaimed in 2014.
On the Syrian side of the border, Russian-backed government forces have been pushing down the Euphrates valley while US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters have been attacking the jihadists from their stronghold in the north.
The launch of the offensive against ISIS' last Iraqi redoubt comes with federal troops and militia engaged in an operation to reassert central government control over thousands of square kilometres of territory long disputed with the Kurds.
Loss of the territory has dealt a crippling blow to the finances of the autonomous Kurdish region and on Wednesday its leaders reached out for talks, saying they were ready to freeze the outcome of the Sept 25 independence referendum.
The Iraqi prime minister on Thursday dismissed the offer, saying it did not go far enough.
"We will accept nothing but the annulment of the referendum and respect for the constitution," he said in a statement.
OIL PIPELINE IN SIGHTS
Abadi, whose stock has been massively boosted by the military successes, received a fresh show of support for his fight against IS and the Kurds from his allies in Iran during a visit to Teheran.
The backing came as Iraqi forces launched a new assault on Kurdish fighters in the disputed oil-rich Zummar area of Nineveh province, Kurdish authorities said.
An AFP correspondent reported heavy artillery exchanges as Kurdish forces put up fierce resistance.
Sources on the Kurdish side said the peshmerga fighters had destroyed three tanks and six armoured vehicles belonging to the Iraqi forces.
Parts of Nineveh province north and east of Iraq's second city Mosul are some of the last areas that Kurdish forces still hold outside their longstanding three-province autonomous region.
Thursday's assault was close to the route of a strategic oil export pipeline linking the Kirkuk fields retaken from the Kurds with the Turkish port of Ceyhan that fell into disuse during IS's lightning sweep through northern and western Iraq in 2014.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Abadi during a meeting in Ankara Wednesday that he was "ready to provide any kind of support to allow the operation of the pipeline".
The course of the defunct pipeline passes through the town of Faysh Khabur, near where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Syria meet, in territory which lies undisputedly inside the autonomous Kurdish region.