Baghdad: Foreign special forces have been carrying out raids on an IS 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 IS 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 US and Iraqi military have denied that US forces have carried out military operations on the ground in Hawija since October, when US special forces rescued 69 Iraqis in a raid that killed one US 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 US special forces.
Washington said last month it was deploying a new force of around 100 special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against IS there and in neighbouring Syria, without providing details.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition bombing IS, rejected the media reports this week.
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 US 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 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 IS in important and sensitive areas," Jabouri said.
He said they were not enough to get rid of IS 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 IS buildings including a courthouse and a police station, killing and capturing several militant leaders. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
The October raid that included US 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 militias and Abadi's own ruling coalition.
The militias, many of which fought US forces after the 2003 invasion, have decried the reports of more recent raids as US 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 IS 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 IS stronghold when the 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 US-trained force that initially fled in the face of IS's advance.
Baghdad and the US-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 IS 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 Fallujah 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.
Fallujah, the first Iraqi city to fall to IS in January 2014, contains several hundreds militants and is encircled by Iraqi forces.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops repelled an attack by IS militants on a military base in northern Iraq where Turkish soldiers are training an Iraqi militia, Turkish military sources told Reuters on Friday.
The Turkish sources cited local sources as saying 17 IS militants were killed in an attack on the Bashiqa camp in Nineveh province, about 140 Km (90 miles) from the Turkish border.
Turkey deployed a force protection unit of around 150 troops last month citing heightened security risks near Bashiqa, where its troops are training the Iraqi militia to fight IS, and stirring a diplomatic row.
Meanwhile, Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan said the attempted attack shows Turkey's decision to deploy troops there was justified.
Erdogan said no Turkish soldiers were harmed.
"This incident shows what a correct step it was, the one regarding Bashiqa. It is clear that with our armed soldiers there, our officers giving the training are prepared for anything at any time," he told reporters in Istanbul.
Erdogan said the problems over the deployment only started after Turkey's relations with Russia soured in the wake of Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in November.
"They (Iraq) asked us to train their soldiers and showed us this base as the venue. But as we see, afterwards, once there were problems between Russia and Turkey... these negative developments began," Erdogan said.
Turkey, he said, was acting in line with international law.