Iraq News

Noose tightening around ISIL in al-Qaim

By Alaa Hussain in Baghdad

An Iraqi army helicopter fires rockets during an operation to retake a town in northern Iraq from the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' in April 2016. [Mohammed SAWAF / AFP]

An Iraqi army helicopter fires rockets during an operation to retake a town in northern Iraq from the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' in April 2016. [Mohammed SAWAF / AFP]

Iraqi strikes targeting gatherings of "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) leaders in and around the Anbar border town of al-Qaim have struck at the heart of the group and weakened its links to Syria, officials say.

Iraqi and coalition efforts have succeeded in eroding the group's hold on the strategic desert town, which it has used as a meeting place and as a bridge and conduit to Albu Kamal, a town directly across the border in Syria, they said.

ISIL's recent strategic losses in Anbar province -- Ramadi and Fallujah among others -- combined with successful operations against the group in Syria, have put enormous pressure on al-Qaim, one of ISIL's few remaining outposts in the province, Iraqi Joint Operations Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasul told Diyaruna.

Striking ISIL leadership

In a joint operation on August 11th, carried out in co-ordination with the Iraqi government and in partnership with the Iraqi forces, coalition and Kurdish forces killed a senior ISIL financier in a raid near al-Qaim, AFP reported.

ISIL financier Sami Jassem Mohammed al-Juburi had been responsible for supervising operations to fund ISIL, including via the sale of oil and gas.

On July 29th, the Iraqi army announced it had killed a group of senior ISIL elements in an airstrike as they gathered in al-Qaim for a meeting, in response to intelligence about "unusual movement" of ISIL elements in the area.

Among those killed was Abu Taha al-Azzawi, a prominent member with close ties to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Joint Operations Command said.

"The slain terrorist was close to ISIL's leader and also had family ties to him, being married to al-Baghdadi's sister," the command's statement said.

Al-Azzawi had been instrumental in orchestrating al-Baghdadi's installation as the leader of ISIL when the group split from former al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front (ANF), now known as Fateh al-Sham Front, in April 2013, the statement said.

In addition to al-Azzawi, the airstrikes also killed 12 senior ISIL leaders from around the country who were in a meeting with him, and injured dozens more.

In an earlier raid, on June 3rd, coalition jets targeted an ISIL site in Husayba al-Gharbia, al-Qaim, which had been used to shelter fighters who crossed from Syria to Iraq, killing at least 20 elements, the Ministry of Interior said.

An ensuing explosion of ammunition and weapons stored inside the place caused a fire that lasted for several hours after the offensive, the ministry said.

Blocking access to al-Qaim

At the end of June, following the liberation of Fallujah, Iraqi and coalition airstrikes destroyed hundreds of ISIL vehicles and killed dozens of the group's fighters as they fled the Fallujah area for al-Qaim.

"This is a desperate attempt on the part of the terrorists to flee to their areas in al-Qaim near the Syrian border and Tharthar," Anbar Operations Command chief Staff Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahalawi told AFP at the time.

The account of the air strikes provided by the Joint Operations Command suggests ISIL fighters had no choice but to attempt a suicidal convoy that they knew would leave them exposed to air strikes.

According to Rasul and other military sources, the first strikes broke up a massive initial convoy that stretched several kilometres.

Before this, on June 17th, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan told Diyaruna that coalition airstrikes had killed or wounded at least 20 ISIL elements traveling in an armed convoy of six four-wheel-drive vehicles as they crossed the border from Albu Kamal to Husayba, near al-Qaim.

Iraqi airstrikes will continue to expedite the dismantling of ISIL's various "provinces" and foil all its efforts to move and restore activity, security adviser Fadel Abu Ragheef told Diyaruna.

ISIL operations under threat

Recent strikes, particularly those targeting meetings of senior ISIL leaders in al-Qaim, where the group draws up its plans, are the fruit of extensive intelligence, said Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a retired Iraqi military officer.

The success of the July 29th operation targeting ISIL leaders, and others like it, means all ISIL's planning and mobilisation centres and weapons depots in the western desert areas of Iraq are now under threat from the Iraqi forces, he said.

ISIL chose al-Qaim as a stronghold due to its remote location, as it is more than 300 kilometres from the nearest large city under the control of the Iraqi forces, al-Rutba mayor Imad al-Dulaimi told Diyaruna.

The proximity of al-Qaim to the Syrian border offers it a direct line of communication with ISIL's stronghold of al-Raqa, which is another reason why the group has favoured the city as a venue for secret meetings, he said, noting that ISIL also has chosen to house the families of its senior leaders there.

But local residents have been instrumental in providing Iraqi forces the needed intelligence to target ISIL bases and meetings, al-Dulaimi said.

This lack of popular support, coupled with increasing pressure from Iraqi and coalition forces, means ISIL's days are numbered in al-Qaim, he said, as it will not be strong enough to withstand the pressure it is facing much longer.

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