Security

Iraqi army secures international highway leading to Saudi Arabia

By Khalid al-Taie

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Military officials from the Middle Euphrates Operations Command inspect a checkpoint on the road that leads to the Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia in June 2019. [Photo courtesy of Iraqi Ministry of Defence]

The Iraqi army announced April 28th it is implementing a plan to prevent "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) militants from compromising the safety of the international highway linking Iraq to Saudi Arabia.

The road is the only access point by land for pilgrim convoys to Mecca and offers an intraregional trade link between the two countries.

The plan involves erecting a dirt barrier and digging a trench along a 120-kilometre stretch that starts from the western desert in Karbala towards the administrative border with Anbar and al-Nakhib administrative district, said Middle Euphrates Operations Command media director Brig. Fahim Kareem.

The army has already built 10 kilometres of the barrier, he said, noting that the plan involves "putting up checkpoints, laying ambushes and deploying security patrols in collaboration with other police units, border guards and members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)".

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A convoy of Iraqi pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj in August 2017. [Photo courtesy of Iraqi Hajj and Umrah Authority]

Efforts include intensive and periodic campaigns to comb the western desert that stretches across Karbala and Anbar provinces with participation from the air force.

The campaigns aim to detect ISIS hideouts and thwart plans to attack the international highway, Kareem said.

The goal of the plan is also to strengthen security in Karbala and nearby areas, he said, adding that the Karbala desert has not recorded any terrorist incidents since the kidnapping and killing of several truffle pickers last year.

"After that incident, we launched several security operations to clear the desert [of ISIS remnants] and extend our control over it," he said. "These operations are now being conducted on a weekly basis."

Night vision cameras monitor the desert round the clock and there are enough checkpoints and patrols to guard the periphery of Karbala, especially the western desert, he added.

Reopening Arar crossing

Securing the land route is part of the government's plan to re-open the Arar border crossing after both Iraq and Saudi Arabia announced last October they will partially reopen the crossing for trade, nearly 30 years after it was closed.

Successive strikes against ISIS in Iraq's western desert have weakened the group, despite the presence of some of its remnants who mount small-scale attacks primarily targeting loosely guarded locations in the desert, said security expert Safaa al-Aasam.

Securing the highway is part of the ongoing operations to weaken these elements and deprive them of the chance to take advantage of the political stalemate and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he told Diyaruna.

ISIS is trying at any cost to motivate its members who are on the defensive and to awaken its sleeper cells to launch attacks, he said.

This means that any security plan has to involve reconnaissance and intelligence efforts supported by advanced surveillance capabilities, he added.

This sentiment was echoed by security expert Mohammed al-Rubaie who said erecting barriers and digging up trenches is not alone sufficient to fully remove the threat of ISIS.

The plan to fight ISIS in the western desert and secure the Arar road -- known as the Hajj path -- requires more surveillance cameras and drone and reconnaissance aircraft sorties, in addition to enhanced communication with locals, he said.

ISIS is seeking the opportunity to prove it still exists, al-Rubaie said, "so we have to continue confronting them and pulling the rug from underneath their feet".

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