The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) no longer has a safe haven in the hills of Hamreen, as reports confirm that intensive military campaigns and targeted airstrikes have left it reeling, with nowhere left to hide.
ISIS had taken advantage of the area's rugged terrain to spread out across a vast stretch of territory between Diyala, Salaheddine and Kirkuk provinces, conceal itself, and stage attacks on area cities from its hideouts.
The group has long sought access to the Hamreen hills, as the terrain and abundance of orchards in this area make it a good place for fighters to hide and regroup, said Diyala police media officer Col. Ghaleb al-Attiyah.
"However, today it is no longer a safe haven for the militants, particularly those who flee the battles of liberation," he told Diyaruna.
"Our forces, in co-operation with the Tigris Operations Command, the army and local fighters, have launched many military operations to clear the area of terrorists and destroy their hideouts and camps," he said.
These operations "have achieved great successes", he added.
Security sweep in Hamreen
"The most recent of these operations took place on September 9th, when we managed to kill 14 terrorists wearing explosive belts and blew up four hideouts, called guest houses, used to prepare suicide bombers," al-Attiyah said.
Security forces swept vast areas of Hamreen, from Imam Weiss to Naft Khana in north-eastern Diyala, he said.
Aerial surveillance contributed to the discovery and destruction of hidden strongholds that were not visible from the ground, he added, and prevented militants from being able to move freely.
"This does not mean that the threat has been totally eliminated, as there are still militants in the area hiding here or there, albeit in small numbers and armed with modest weapons," he said.
But these remnants are "totally demoralised", he said, "and definitely incapable of launching major attacks, and might resort to hit-and-run banditry".
"Even if they adopt this tactic, which they used years ago, we are ready to respond," he said. "The terrorists have no choice but to surrender, without resistance, or be killed."
Monitoring ISIS movements
Media reports indicate there are a few hundred ISIS elements hiding in the valleys and remote areas of Hamreen.
The remaining militants are hiding in "small groups, limited to no more than five or six gunmen in each", said Abdul-Khaliq al-Azzawi, deputy chairman of the Diyala provincial council’s security committee.
The search-and-destroy campaigns have exhausted ISIS elements, inflicted human and material losses on them and made them vulnerable, he told Diyaruna.
Their positions and movements are being monitored from the air, and they are being hunted on the ground, he added.
However, the group "still retains some presence in the Hamreen hills, al-Azim, al-Mansouriya and north of al-Muqdadiya areas, and this presence poses a threat to residents", al-Azzawi said.
'Loose bands of fighters'
ISIS’s strength in the Hamreen region has waned and its elements are now "merely loose bands of fighters holed up in hidden pockets", said strategy expert Ahmed al-Sharifi.
"They do not have enough weapons and capabilities to gain a foothold, break [defence] lines or attack cities or villages," he said.
The group has responded to this defeat by harassing security forces with hit and run attacks, he told Diyaruna.
With these sporadic attacks, ISIS has been seeking to disrupt the security situation and buy time before the start of the major military campaign to liberate al-Hawija and parts of western Kirkuk, al-Sharifi said.
They are fleeing these areas for the Hamreen hills and eastern Salaheddine province, he added.
If the situation in the Hamreen hills area is not resolved, he said, the remaining militants will remain a threat, even after the military operations have been completed.