BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Foreign special forces have been carrying out raids on an Islamic State stronghold in northern Iraq ahead of an offensive planned later this year to retake Mosul, the largest city under the group's control, Iraq's parliamentary speaker said.
Several attacks behind Islamic State lines around Hawija, 210 kilometres (130 miles) north of Baghdad, were carried out in recent weeks, Salim al-Jabouri told Reuters on Thursday.
Both the U.S. and Iraqi military have denied that U.S. forces have carried out military operations on the ground in Hawija since October, when U.S. special forces rescued 69 Iraqis in a raid that killed one U.S. commando.
But Dubai-based al-Hadath TV and Iraqi media have reported at least half a dozen raids in and around Hawija since late December, led by U.S. special forces.
Washington said last month it was deploying a new force of around 100 special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against Islamic State there and in neighbouring Syria, without providing details.
U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition bombing Islamic State, rejected the media reports this week, calling them "Iranian disinformation" aimed at distracting from Iraqi military gains against Islamic State elsewhere.
He told Reuters that coalition forces in Iraq have not operated on the ground since the October operation. Iraq's defence minister last week also denied that the U.S. had a role in such raids.
Special operations in Hawija "have been repeated a second and third time ... These operations are bearing fruit," said Jabouri, Iraq's most senior Sunni Arab official. "They eliminate the terrorists and free innocents, and for us it represents a positive development."
Jabouri said the raids were carried out "from time to time" and "supported by Iraqi forces" but did not specify whether the United States played a role or how many had occurred.
The raids are "not direct ground attacks; they are operations targeting the dens of Daesh in important and sensitive areas," Jabouri said, using an Arabic acronym for the group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
He said they were not enough to get rid of Islamic State but "are dealing them strong blows".
Local sources near Hawija, including a police officer and a municipal official, said last week that several raids had targeted Islamic State buildings including a courthouse and a police station, killing and capturing several militant leaders. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
ROAD TO MOSUL
The October raid that included U.S. special forces "is the only operation that we have spoken about and the only one that we will speak about," Warren, the coalition spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.
That operation, conducted with peshmerga commandos from northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, sparked outrage by powerful Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and Abadi's own ruling coalition.
The militias, many of which fought U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion, have decried the reports of more recent raids as U.S. attempts to divide Iraq.
Jabouri said such sensitivities were easing and described the raids as part of Baghdad's strategy to retake Mosul, the city 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad where Islamic State declared its intention to establish a caliphate stretching across the border with Syria.
Strategically located east of the road from Baghdad to Mosul and near the Kurdish-held oil region of Kirkuk, the region became an Islamic State stronghold when the ultra-hardline Sunni militants swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
The government has designated Mosul as the next target for Iraq's armed forces after they retook the western city of Ramadi last month, the first major success of the U.S.-trained force that initially fled in the face of Islamic State's advance.
Baghdad and the U.S.-led coalition, though, have not made clear what path they intend to take to the capital of Nineveh province while most of Anbar province remains under Islamic State control.
Jabouri said the advance to Mosul could not be rushed.
"We cannot think of moving to another province until Anbar province is cleansed completely, which means there is an upcoming battle related to Falluja and what remains of it, and another one to the west of Ramadi," said Jabouri.
"At the same time there are preparations underway for Nineveh," he added.
Falluja, the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014, contains several hundreds militants and is encircled by Iraqi forces.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Maher Chmaytelli, editing by Larry King and Dominic Evans)