The recent handover of al-Qaim military base in Anbar province from the international coalition to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is a positive step that confirms the capabilities of the Iraqi army in the face of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), military officials and observers say.
The Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR) announced the handover of al-Qaim base on March 17th.
"Al-Qaim served as a critical location in the fight against ISIS," Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, CJTF-OIR Director of Sustainment, said in a statement. "First, as the ISF liberated the al-Qaim region from an evil presence, and later as a valuable base during the Battle for al-Baghouz, the last physical territory held by ISIS."
"Today's transfer is possible thanks to the efforts and successes of our ISF partners," he said.
The ISF increasingly conducts independent operations in the fight against ISIS and the defence of their homeland, including the Heroes of Iraq military operation launched in February and last year's Will of Victory campaigns, the statement said.
The ISF on March 2nd launched the Sharp Sword operations -- "the largest military operations" against ISIS since their defeat in late 2017 -- which aim to hit ISIS remnants hiding in the western al-Jazeera area, located between the provinces of Anbar, Salaheddine and Ninawa.
Iraqi forces taking the lead
While the ISF is taking the lead in the fight against ISIS remnants, international coalition forces will remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and will continue to provide advice and training to Iraqi forces, the CJTF-OIR statement said.
The handover of al-Qaim "proves that our forces have a high level of expertise and competence and that they are sufficiently qualified to take matters into their own hands", said Maj. Gen. Tahseen al-Khafaji, spokesperson for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command.
The al-Qaim base was considered to be "a major launchpad for the battle to liberate the town of al-Qaim" from ISIS, he told Diyaruna.
After liberating the town, located in western Anbar province along the border with Syria, in November 2017, he said, "the military base became a source of advanced logistical support for all military operations targeting ISIS elements", particularly in the Upper Euphrates region.
Al-Khafaji called the handover of the base "a positive step that confirms the capabilities of the Iraqi army and specifically the al-Jazeera Operations Command which is responsible for preserving the security of the border area".
The border strip with Syria is "secured and under control", he said.
"The Joint Operations Command has the plans and resources to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the border and to destroy any of their hideouts in the desert region along the border," he said.
On March 31st, the international coalition pulled out of another military base in Mosul. In the coming weeks, they will also leave an expansive base in Kirkuk.
Building on military successes
The ISF are now able to rely on themselves to manage and implement military operations targeting ISIS elements, security analyst Sarmad al-Bayati told Diyaruna.
The skills that the forces gained during battles, training and advisory efforts from the coalition forces make them better prepared today to shoulder responsibility, he said.
At the same time, al-Bayati said, Iraq needs more support from the international coalition in the form of supplying the latest military technology, developing aerial defence systems, and conducting drone reconnaissance and intelligence operations.
"Our forces have achieved a high level of competency and efficiency, which has been evident during independent military campaigns against ISIS conducted in rugged terrain," said military expert Jalil Khalaf.
The Will of Victory operations in their eight stages and the Heroes of Iraq operation constitute a significant test that the Iraqi forces managed to pass and "they are now able to move forward in achieving more success", he told Diyaruna.
Handing over the al-Qaim military base, followed by al-Qayyarah (near Mosul) and K1 (Kirkuk) bases, is part of "a plan by the international coalition to... continue providing support to the Iraqi army in the event it needs help with clamping down on any terrorist activity", he said.