BAGHDAD—Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, battled Islamic State militants for a third day on Tuesday in a remote western town, hundreds of kilometers to the south of the operation to retake Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
The clashes under way in Rutba, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, are apparently part of the extremist group’s tactics to divert attention—as well as Iraqi and coalition resources—from the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants.
“Fighting is ongoing in Rutba, which is still contested,” said Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
“The coalition continues conducting strikes to support the Iraqi security forces’ response efforts, including one against a Daesh convoy that was attempting to flee the area,” he added, referring to Islamic State by an Arabic acronym.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, said the situation was under control and there were no Islamic State fighters in the town. But Rajeh Barakat, an Anbar provincial councilman who sits on the security committee, said Islamic State fighters were still clashing with security forces in two southern neighborhoods of Rutba.
“The clashes are still ongoing,” he said. “We have reports saying the militants killed some civilians and members of the security forces, but we don’t know how many.”
Islamic State militants launched a complex attack on Rutba on Sunday, almost a week into the operation in Mosul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are waging a wide-scale offensive to drive the militants from Iraq’s second-largest city.
Last week, the militants launched a similar assault in and around the northern city of Kirkuk, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul. The wide-ranging assault ignited gunbattles that lasted two days, killing at least 80 people.