BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces Wednesday launched an operation to hunt down rebel groups, including remnants of Islamic State (IS) militants, in rural areas in Iraq's central province of Salahudin, security sources said.
A joint force from the Iraqi army, police and paramilitary Hashd Shaabi brigades advanced in five routes in north and south of the city of Tuz-Khurmato, some 90 km east of Salahudin's capital Tikrit, to chase the terrorist rebel groups of IS, Ansar al-Sunna and the so-called the White Flags, who repeatedly carried out attacks against civilians and Iraqi security forces in Tuz-Khurmato and nearby Kirkuk province, Colonel Mohammed Khalaf from Salahudin provincial police told Xinhua.
The advance of the troops and their armored vehicles, which was backed by helicopter gunships and artillery, was targeting the rebel groups hiding in the mountainous area in east of Tuz-Khurmato that extends to neighboring provinces of Diyala and Sulaimaniyah, Khalaf said.
Meanwhile, a statement from the federal police said their special forces, known as Rapid Response, cleared three villages, a mountain and some hills in east of Tuz-Khurmato from the rebels and seized a camp for IS militants in the area.
The Hashd Shaabi also said in a statement that its forces seized two villages in east of Tuz-Khurmato in the first hours of the operation and destroyed some tunnels of the White Flags group, which is an extremist Sunni militant group that has suspected ties with some Kurdish parties.
The ethnically-mixed city of Tuz-Khurmato is mostly made up of Turkoman Shiite as well as sizable Kurdish and Sunni Arab population.
Previously, the city witnessed repeated clashes between the Kurds and Shiite militias, as the city and surrounding areas are part of the disputed areas outside the Kurdistan region, which are claimed by the Kurds and both Arabs and Turkomans. The Kurds want to incorporate the areas on the edge of their Kurdistan region, but their move is fiercely opposed by Baghdad government and non-Kurdish residents.
The operation came as tensions are running high between Baghdad government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan after the Kurdish region held a controversial referendum on independence of Kurdistan and disputed areas.
Ahmed al-Jubouri, the governor of Salahudin province, frequently complained that rebel group has been regrouping in the vast rugged areas in the eastern part of the province that stretch to the neighboring Diyala province and the nearby Himreen mountainous area.
During the past few months, dozens of IS militants fled their former bases in the key cities of the predominately Sunni Arab province of Salahudin, including the provincial capital Tikrit, some 170 km north of Baghdad, after the Iraqi forces cleared these areas during major anti-IS offensives.