by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 24, 2017
Iraqi forces said Friday that Islamic State group fighters are withdrawing deep into the desert to escape an offensive aimed at a final defeat of the jihadists.
IS has already been driven out of all of the towns it once held, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said he will not proclaim victory until the jihadists have been cleared from the western desert bordering Syria.
The Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary force said its fighters had taken control of 77 villages and hamlets since the launch of the offensive on Thursday morning.
It said five jihadists had been killed south of the ancient desert city of Hatra, but otherwise IS had put up little resistance.
The Hashed said that its fighters, who are mainly recruited from Shiite militias, overran an airfield in the same area, where they discovered underground warehouses used by the jihadists.
Air support for the offensive, which also involves the army and federal police, has so far been provided exclusively by the Iraqi air force.
The US-led coalition, which has provided air support for other offensives against IS in Iraq, said it carried out no strikes on Thursday.
"We will provide strikes if we know that there is an ISIS (IS) cell, or tunnels, or something there," coalition spokesman US Colonel Ryan Dillon told AFP.
"If the requests are not coming, we won't do a strike... it's supply and demand," he said.
"And when you're in such a vast wide open desert area... there's less of a requirement for precision-guided missiles," unlike in urban areas.
At its peak in 2014, IS ruled over seven million people in a territory as large as Italy encompassing large parts of Syria and nearly a third of Iraq.
It is now being flushed out of its last desert hideouts in Iraq and under attack by Russian-backed government forces and US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in its last pockets of control in Syria.
Iraq launches final sweep to flush out IS
The arid, sparsely populated wastelands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are the last refuge of the jihadists in Iraq after troops and paramilitaries ousted them from all urban areas.
"The Iraqi army, the federal police and the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units) this morning began clearing the Al-Jazeera region straddling Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar provinces," the head of Joint Operations Command, General Abdelamir Yarallah, said in a statement.
The Hashed al-Shaabi released live footage from Siniyah in Saleheddin province of bulldozers clearing an earthen barrier to allow heavy armour to advance into the desert.
The tanks bore both the Iraq national flag and that of the paramilitary force, which is made up largely of Shiite militias -- a black standard bearing the name of Imam Hussein, one of the faith's most revered figures.
Long lines of pick-up trucks waited to follow.
By the afternoon the Hashed said its forces had already taken control of 56 villages and hamlets to reach the area around Lake Tharthar, capturing three strategic bridges and destroying eight car bombs and pick-up trucks along the way.
The Al-Jazeera region is where IS fighters escaped to when Iraqi forces recaptured the last towns they still held in a successful drive up the Euphrates Valley to the Syrian border earlier this month.
That offensive culminated in the lightning recapture of the town of Rawa last Friday and saw Iraqi forces meet up with Syrian forces at the border.
"This operation is aimed at clearing the desert of the pockets where the jihadists took refuge when the towns that they had held were recently liberated," a senior officer in Anbar province told AFP.
- 'Final defeat' -
The region's dry valleys, oases and steppes make up around four percent of national territory, Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on IS, told AFP last week.
It has been known as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency and smuggling since the US-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, long before the arrival of IS in 2014.
"There are some desert areas which Iraqi government forces have not entered since 2003 and the operation is aimed at securing these areas 100 percent," security analyst Said al-Jayyashi told AFP.
"Once the clearance operations have been completed right up to the Iraq-Syria border, forces will redeploy and fortify the frontier," he said.
Iraq's close ally Iran has already declared victory over IS but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that he would not follow suit until the desert had been cleared of remaining jihadists.
"After the operation has ended, we will announce the final defeat of Daesh in Iraq," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
It is a massive turnaround for the jihadist group that in 2014 ruled over seven million people in a territory as large as Italy encompassing large parts of Syria and nearly a third of Iraq.
On the Syrian side of the border, IS is under massive pressure too.
In the border region, pro-government forces and US-backed Kurdish-led fighters are conducting separate operations to clear IS fighters from the countryside north of the Euphrates valley after ousting them from all Syrian towns.
Elsewhere, IS retains a presence in the Yarmuk refugee camp and the Hajar Aswad district just south of the capital Damascus, where the group is battling other jihadists and pro-government forces.
In the central province of Homs, it is being squeezed by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and their Russian backers as it struggles to maintain a grip on a few small areas.
To the south, in Daraa province on the border with Jordan, an affiliated group called Jaish Khaled Bin Walid is mainly battling other rebel groups.
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) Nov 22, 2017
Iraqi officials said they found another mass grave in the northern Sinjar region on Wednesday containing the bodies of dozens of members of the Yazidi minority killed by the Islamic State group. "The mass grave contains the bodies of 73 people, men, women and children executed by the Islamic State group when they controlled the region," local official Chokor Melhem Elias told AFP. He sai ... read more
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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