Iraq launches final sweep to flush out ISIL
Iraqi forces launched a sweep through the western desert to flush out remaining Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group fighters on Nov. 23, an operation the prime minister has said will spell the jihadists’ “final defeat” in the country.Iraqi forces launched a sweep through the western desert to flush out remaining Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group fighters on Nov. 23, an operation the prime minister has said will spell the jihadists’ “final defeat” in the country.
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 both valleys and 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 armor 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.
The Hashed said its forces had already taken control of a dozen villages, destroying a car bomb and defusing dozens of booby-traps planted by the jihadists.
The Al-Jazeera region is where ISIL fighters took refuge 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.
The region’s dry valleys, oases and steppes make up around four percent of national territory, Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on ISIL, told AFP last week.
It has been known as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency and smuggling since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, long before the arrival of ISIL 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 ISIL but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Nov. 21 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 ISIL.
It is a massive turnaround for an organization 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, ISIL is under massive pressure too.