BAGHDAD – Islamic State group militants launched an assault Thursday on a small town in western Iraq, a military spokesman said, as the United Nations warned that 10 months of violence in the country has taken a heavy toll on civilians.
Iraq is in its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops as Sunni militant groups led by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group have seized a third of the country since early this year. In one lightning offensive over the summer, Iraq's U.S.-trained army and security forces melted away as the extremists advanced and captured key cities and towns in country's north.
In Iraq and along with areas in eastern Syria, the militants have declared a self-styled caliphate and imposed their own harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. They have also targeted the country's religious minorities, including Christians and others, killing hundreds and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes.
The attack Thursday against the town of Hit started at dawn when the militants, using at least three suicide bombers, attacked checkpoints at its entrances, military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said. Al-Moussawi said there were causalities among the security forces but that no precise figure was available.
A resident said militants were seen taking control of the mayor office and roaming the streets with pickup trucks fitted with machine guns as the dead bodies of security force members lay in the streets. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.
The fighting over Hit in Anbar province, some 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of Baghdad, comes as Iraqi Kurdish security forces, known as peshmerga, have dislodged militants from northwestern towns of Rabia, Zumar and Mahmoudiyah, with the assistance of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. Central Command said late Thursday that coalition aircraft, including those from the United Kingdom, took part in airstrikes around Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and Sinjar.
Also Thursday, the U.N. said the ongoing fighting has left a "staggering array" of gross human rights abuses and "acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature" committed by the militants as well as Iraqi security forces and associated forces.
In a 29-page report, the U.N. special mission to Iraq and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the abuses include directly targeting civilians and civilian buildings, the targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and the denial of fundamental freedoms.
In a statement, the U.N. said the death toll among civilians so far this year is at least 9,347 civilians, while 17,386 have been wounded. It said over half of the casualties have happened since Islamic State group began overrunning large parts of the north in early June.
"This report is terrifying," said Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, saying that hundreds of other allegations concerning the killing of civilians were not included because they had not yet been sufficiently verified. "Iraqi leaders must act in unity to restore control over areas that have been taken over by (Islamic State group fighters) and implement inclusive social, political and economic reforms."