BAGHDAD, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces on Friday retook control of 39 villages from Islamic State (IS) militants as part of the first phase of an offensive to dislodge the extremist militants from their stronghold of Hawijah and surrounding areas, the Iraqi military said.
The army's 9th Armored Division and two paramilitary Hashd Shaabi brigades freed 19 villages as they pushed in the rural area in north of the city of Hawijah, some 230 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Yarallah, from the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC), said in a brief statement.
Also in the day, the federal police and the elite interior ministry forces, known as Rapid Response, recaptured up to 20 villages in northwest and west of Hawijah, Yarallah said in a separate statement.
On Thursday, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Hashd Shaabi brigades, said the offensive will be conducted in two phases: the first is to retake control of areas in east of the city of Shirqat; the second is to dislodge IS militants from their stronghold in Hawijah.
Earlier in the day, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the launch of a new offensive to drive out IS militants from Hawijah in the western part of Iraq's oil-rich Kirkuk province.
"With a new Iraqi dawn, we announce the launch of the first stage of an operation to liberate Hawijah," Abadi said in the morning in a brief statement.
The operations to free Hawijah came as tensions are running high between Baghdad government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan after the government of the Kurdish region insisted to hold a controversial referendum on independence of Kurdistan and disputed areas.
The neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran and Syria also feel that the move would threaten their territorial integrity, as large numbers of Kurdish population live in those countries.