By Maher Chmaytelli-BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Several hundred suspected Islamic State fighters surrendered last week to Kurdish authorities after the militant group lost its last stronghold in northern Iraq, a security official said on Tuesday.
The suspects were part of a group of men who fled towards Kurdish-held lines when Iraqi forces captured the Islamic State base in Hawija, the Kurdish official told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
The report of militants fleeing, rather than fighting to the finish as in previous battles, suggested their morale may be fading, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert on Islamic State affairs.
“They no longer seem to believe in the cause,” Hashimi told Reuters.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio recording two weeks ago that indicated he was alive, after several reports he had been killed. He urged his followers to keep up the fight despite setbacks in Iraq and Syria.
“Approximately 1,000 men surrendered over the last week. Not all, however, are terrorists,” said the security official in Erbil, the northern Iraqi base of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
They handed themselves in to Peshmerga forces in the Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk, east of Hawija, he said. “It’s fair to say hundreds probably are ISIS (Islamic State) members, but that will be clear after the debriefs,” he said.
The town of Hawija and surrounding areas fell on Oct. 5 in an offensive by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops and Iranian-trained and armed Shi’ite paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.
Islamic State’s last territory in Iraq is now a stretch along the western border with Syria, including the border town of al-Qaim.
The militants also hold areas on the Syrian side of the border, but they are retreating there in the face of two sets of hostile forces – a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition and Syrian government troops with foreign Shi’ite militias backed by Iran and Russia.
Islamic State’s cross-border “caliphate” effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq, in a nine-month battle.
(Editing by Catherine Evans and Andrew Heavens)