Iraq launches operation to clear desert region bordering Syria of ISIS militants

Iraqi forces stand guard near the al-Qaim border crossing between Syria and Iraq on Nov 8, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - Iraqi forces launched an operation on Thursday (Nov 23) to clear the desert bordering Syria of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in a final push to rid Iraq of the militant group, the military said.

Troops from the Iraqi army and Shi'ite Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were taking part in the campaign against militants hiding in a large strip of border land, Iraqi military officials said.

"The objective behind the operation is to prevent remaining Daesh groups from melting into the desert region and using it as a base for future attacks," said army colonel Salah Kareem, referring to ISIS by an Arabic acronym.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday ISIS had been defeated from a military perspective, but he would only declare final victory after ISIS militants were routed in the desert.

Iraqi forces on Friday captured the border town of Rawa, the last remaining town under ISIS control in Iraq, signalling the collapse of the "caliphate" proclaimed after the group overran much of Iraq's north and west in 2014.

Iraqi army commanders say the military campaign will continue until all the frontier with Syria is secured to prevent ISIS from launching cross border attacks.

"We will completely secure the desert from all terrorist groups of Daesh and declare Iraq clean of those germs," said army Brigadier General Shakir Kadhim.

Once the desert operations end, Prime Minister Abadi is expected to officially announce the final victory over ISIS, said official sources.

Army officials said troops advancing through sprawling desert towards the Syria border are facing landmines and roadside bombs placed by retreating militants.

"We need to clean scattered villages from terrorists to make sure they no longer operate in the desert area with Syria," said army lieutenant colonel Ahmed Fairs.

Iraqi military helicopters provided cover for the advancing troops and destroyed at least three vehicles used by ISIS militants as they were trying to flee a village in the western desert, said the army officer.

ISIS' self-declared caliphate collapsed in effect in July, when US-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group's de facto capital in Iraq, after a gruelling battle that had lasted nine months.

Driven also from its other bastion in Syria's Raqqa, ISIS has since been gradually squeezed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the Syria-Iraq frontier by a range of enemies that include most regional states and global powers.

The group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to be hiding in the stretch of desert which runs along the border of both countries.

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