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Iraq PM wins Iran support as forces battle IS, Kurds
by Staff Writers
Tehran (AFP) Oct 26, 2017

Iraq PM visits ally Iran as war on IS, Kurd dispute hot up
Tehran (AFP) Oct 26, 2017 - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi held talks with key ally Iran on Thursday as his forces launched an offensive against the Islamic State group's last bastion in the country.

Independently of Washington, Tehran has poured significant resources into the war against the jihadists in Iraq, providing weapons, advice and training to the Shiite militias which dominate the key paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force.

Abadi held morning talks with First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri ahead of meetings with other top leaders.

Buoyed by the success of the campaign against the jihadists, who have now been virtually confined to a stretch of the Euphrates valley straddling the border with Syria, Abadi has been on a regional tour that on Wednesday saw him in Ankara.

High on the agenda of his talks has been his bitter dispute with the Kurds over the spoils of the fightback against IS.

Kurdish leaders held a referendum on independence last month to the fury not only of Baghdad but also of neighbouring Iran and Turkey which have long been fearful of anything that might stoke separatist sentiment among their own large Kurdish minorities.

In a statement issued by his office in Baghdad on Thursday, Abadi said that an offer by Kurdish leaders to freeze the outcome of the vote did not go far enough. He said only complete annulment would suffice.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose forces Thursday battled jihadists in the west of the country and Kurds in the north, won the support of Iranian leaders at talks in Tehran.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "gave his support for measures taken by the Iraqi government to defend the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq", Khamenei's office said in a statement after their meeting.

Abadi also held talks with President Hassan Rouhani who said Iran "has and always will stand alongside" Iraq "when it comes to fighting terrorism, reinforcing (its) unity and preserving its territorial integrity".

"The fight against terrorism and separatist goals... must be monitored and Tehran wants to contribute to reinforcing the Iraqi central government," Rouhani added, according to the presidency's website.

Buoyed by the success of the campaign against the Islamic State jihadist group and operations against the Kurds, Abadi has been on a regional tour that on Wednesday saw him in Ankara.

The Tehran stop came as Iraqi forces launched a new assault on Kurdish forces in a disputed area of Nineveh province, sparking heavy artillery exchanges, according to Kurdish authorities and correspondents in the region.

Government forces have since last week snatched back control of thousands of square kilometres (miles) of territory long disputed with the Kurds, in a feud which has boiled over since a Kurdish independence referendum held in defiance of Baghdad on September 25.

The vote organised by the leadership of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the country's north angered neighbours Turkey and Iran, both fearful of anything that might stoke separatist sentiment among their own large Kurdish minorities.

Also on Thursday, federal troops and allied paramilitaries launched an offensive up the Euphrates Valley towards the Syrian border in a bid to retake the last IS bastion in Iraq.

Tehran has poured significant resources into the war against the jihadists in Iraq, providing weapons, advice and training to the Shiite militias which dominate the paramilitary force.

Its involvement has irked Washington but has been defended by the Iraqi prime minister, who gave a firm rebuff to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over his comments on the issue.

Abadi has been deeply defensive of his government's close alliance with neighbouring Iran, which like Iraq is a Shiite-majority country.

On a visit to Tehran's Sunni arch rival Riyadh on Sunday, Tillerson called for Iranian militias in Iraq to "go home" as the fight against IS was coming to a close.

The fighters of the paramilitary force are "Iraqis who have fought terrorism, defended their country and made sacrifices to defeat (IS)", Abadi said, according to a statement from his office.

Terrain, geopolitics make for tricky last battle on IS
Beirut (AFP) Oct 26, 2017 - The Islamic State group's empire has shrunk fast this year but the rump of its "caliphate" on the Iraq-Syria border is a hostile jihadist heartland where competing regional interests converge.

After losing their main hubs of Mosul and Raqa this year, the noose continued to tighten around holdout IS fighters regrouping in the badlands where the organisation was born.

On Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, announced an assault in the last areas of Anbar province where IS retains a foothold, further turning up the heat on the jihadists' routed remnants.

A key target of the latest Iraqi operation is Al-Qaim, one of the last towns of note still under jihadist control in Iraq.

Syrian regime forces and allied militia groups still have some ground to cover before reaching Albu Kamal, which is Al-Qaim's twin town on the Syrian side of the border.

The group that ruled over a "state" covering roughly the size of Britain only three years ago appears to be on its last legs but the final battle to retake its remote border heartland could be a tough one.

"The geography and the society in this area are distinct from elsewhere... they make for a tougher terrain. It is difficult to navigate," said analyst Hassan Hassan, author of an acclaimed book on IS.

The areas beyond the immediate fertile strip flanking the Euphrates river are arid and remote, Sunni Arab tribal hinterlands that always escaped central authority to some extent.

"It is more complicated than other regions because this is where IS emerged back in the day," Hassan said of the restive region, where the population is traditionally hostile to both President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurds.

- 'Easy part' -

Iraqi and Syrian government forces lack deep knowledge of the terrain there or local partners they can heavily rely on, such as the US-backed force that retook the jihadist stronghold of Raqa last week.

That Kurdish-led alliance will be involved in the final assault on IS but only further north, in mostly desert areas between the Syrian cities of Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh.

Iraqi federal forces are advancing with fighters from Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shiite militias loyal to Iran.

On the other arm of the pincer closing in on the jihadists are Syrian regime forces, that are at least 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Albu Kamal and supported by Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese and Afghan militia.

The last IS bastions to fall are likely to be on the Syrian side where -- according to Christopher Meserole, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and several other analysts -- the group still has an estimated 5,000 fighters.

Yet the jihadists have already begun reverting to an insurgency that could thrive if the disparate victors of the "caliphate" fail to work together in the region.

"Defeating the Islamic State will be the easy part," said Meserole. "The hard part will be securing the peace, making sure that the forces converging on Deir Ezzor don't start fighting among themselves."

"The stakes for Deir Ezzor could not be higher," he said of the oil-rich eastern Syrian province which, unlike Raqa, was a priority of recent military efforts by regime.

"The Iranians want an overland route to the Mediterranean. The Kurds want a buffer between Assad's forces and their territory further to the north. In some ways, the situation is like the end of World War II, when Soviet and American forces converged on Berlin."

Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, argued that the United States had already almost lost that contest.

"The United States and their allies wanted to take the Iraqi-Syrian border. They wanted to create an Arab force capable of running this area, that also would have cut the corridor the Iranians are building," he said.

"But they don't have the means to do that, or indeed maybe not the will. (US President Donald) Trump appears to want to get rid of the Islamic State and not see any further."

Hashed al-Shaabi: controversial force on Iraq's frontlines
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 25, 2017
A vital force that helped defeat the Islamic State group, or a dangerous tool of Iran? Fighters from Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi are a controversial irregular element battling on the country's frontlines. The organisation formed in 2014 after the country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged citizens to take up arms against IS jihadists who had swept aside gover ... read more

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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century

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