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Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

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By Raya Jalabi

ERBIL Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces have entered al-Qaim, one of the last remaining territories in the country still held by Islamic State militants, the Joint Operations Command said on Friday.

Units from the Iraqi army, Counter-Terrorism Services, Sunni tribal and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation forces (PMF) are participating in an offensive to recapture al-Qaim and Rawa, two towns which lie on the border area with Syria.

Iraq's security forces retook a border crossing with Syria from the militants, hours after entering al-Qaim, according to the Joint Operations Command.

The road runs through al-Qaim in Iraq and Albu-Kamal in Syria, two towns which are very close to each other on opposite sides of the border in the last important territorial stronghold of Islamic State.

Welcoming the offensive, the U.S.-led international military coalition, which has run an air campaign against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq since 2014, said in a statement that approximately 1,500 Islamic State fighters were estimated to remain in the immediate vicinity of al-Qaim.

Operations to clear the militants from their final strongholds in Iraq have continued, despite a concurrent military advance on Kurdish-held territory in the north.

Iraq's central government launched an offensive on Oct. 16 to seize disputed territories, claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, in retaliation for a referendum on Kurdish independence held on Sept. 25.

In a lightning strike, central government forces swiftly recaptured large areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, from the Kurds, who had seized these areas when Islamic State swept across northern Iraq in 2014.

On Thursday, Iraqi forces threatened to resume military operations against the Kurds, accusing them of delaying the handover of control of borders and taking advantage of negotiations to bolster their defences.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Gareth Jones/William Maclean)

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