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U.S.-backed forces celebrate full liberation of Raqqa

By Ed Adamczyk
U.S.-backed forces celebrate full liberation of Raqqa
Syrian Democratic Forces troops pose in celebration after the liberation of Raqqa, Syria, on Friday. Photo by Youssef Rabih Youssef/EPA

Oct. 20 (UPI) -- The U.S.-backed coalition fighting militants in Syria formally announced Friday that the city of Raqqa -- the onetime capital of the Islamic State in the country -- has been entirely liberated.

Syrian Defense Forces spokesman Talal Silo, speaking at a soccer stadium where Islamic State forces made their last stand, called the triumph after a sustained four-month assault a "historic victory". Silo said control of the city would be given to civilian leaders and that the SDF would continue to offer protection.

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The stadium had formerly been used by the Islamic State as a detention center.

Earlier this week the SDF declared its major military operations in Raqqa had concluded, though pockets of resistance remained in the city nearly destroyed by aerial bombardment. Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said 95 percent of militants had either been killed or run out of Raqqa -- and that clearing of land mines had begun.

RELATED Experts: Islamic State 'death spiral' most dangerous part of fight for U.S. coalition

Brett McGurk, the coalition's U.S. envoy, said the terrorist group suffered about 6,000 casualties during the final fight for Raqqa. A congratulatory statement from the White House opened a new phase in Syrian civil war, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blaming the Syrian government for slowing efforts to liberate the city.

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The long fight in Raqqa included Kurdish Peshmerga troops who have been allied with Iraqi forces to defeat IS militants, but now find themselves at odds with the Iraqi government.

The Iraq military command announced Friday it now controls oil-rich areas north of Kirkuk, after clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

RELATED Kurdish party says Iraqi forces seized the oil fields in Kirkuk

Iraq began an assault on Kurdish troops in disputed Kirkuk province after a Sept. 25 referendum in which Kurdish voters overwhelmingly approved Kurdish independence from Iraq.

The Iraqi military command said all of the province's oil fields, military bases and government facilities are under Iraqi control. Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces of militias aligned with the Iraqi government, said Thursday that its forces have withdrawn from the area. Local police are now handling security duties.

A Peshmerga commander said 26 Kurdish troops died during the four-day assault by Iraqi forces to push Kurdish troops out of the region.

RELATED Deal reached to evacuate IS-held Raqqa as 100 soldiers surrender

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