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Iraqi forces launch fresh anti-ISIS military operation amid uptick in attacks

Iraqi security forces have launched a new operation targeting Islamic State (ISIS)  sleeper cells in the deserted areas between Mosul, Anbar, and Saladin.

The areas have seen a recent uptick in insurgent activity, including bombings, ambushes, kidnapping, extortion, and arson.

The operation, named “Lions of al-Jazeera” was announced by Iraq’s Security Media Cell on Sunday morning.

“We announce the  start of the Lions of al-Jazeera military operation this morning on  May 17, 2020 to defeat ISIS sleeper cells in the areas of western  Saladin, southern Mosul, and northern Anbar as well as areas on [the] Iraqi-Syrian border,” read the statement.

The multi-day operation will be conducted by Iraqi army units, large units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi) and Sunni tribal fighters known as Hashd al-Ahsairi,  and be accompanied by Iraqi warplanes.

Security forces seized four caves and a tunnel used as hiding places by  militants in western Saladin, the Media Cell announced later on Sunday.

Although the Iraqi government announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in December 2017, remnants of the group have since returned to  their earlier insurgency tactics, ambushing security forces, kidnapping and executing suspected informants, and extorting money  from vulnerable rural populations.

Having lost all of its urban strongholds, the group is now most active in Iraq’s remote deserts and mountains, and in the disputed territories contested by the federal government and the  autonomous Kurdish region, where a wide security vacuum has opened up.

ISIS has been held responsible for a spate of attacks on the Iraqi Security Forces and PMF units.

Late on Friday, the PMF said four of its fighters were killed and six injured in an ISIS attack in northern Diyala.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the PMF said its units had come under attack in Khanaqin, Jurf al-Nasr (formally known as Jurf  al-Sakhir) and on the Syrian-Iraqi border in the Akashat area of western Anbar.

On Friday the Iraqi defense ministry said two soldiers were killed and four others wounded when their convoy hit an IED in northern Baghdad  province. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the blast.

These follow a spate of attacks in early May, the deadliest of which saw ten PMF fighters killed in a five-pronged assault in Saladin on May 2.

On the same day, militants killed three federal police officers and  wounded two others in an attack on Zaghniya police station in Diyala  province.

In recent days, ISIS militants have also resumed an earlier tactic of  torching crop fields. The group claimed responsibility for arson  attacks in Diyala last week, and is thought to be behind a series of fires in Makhmour on Tuesday.

The terror group published a 49-minute video on messaging app Telegram on Friday showing a number of attacks on security forces and civilians accused of working with Iraqi authorities.

During the film entitled “Strike the Necks”, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quraishi warned that more attacks are to take place in the coming weeks.

“The government of infidels should realize that the will of our jihadists is very high, and what is coming is more severe than what has gone before,” Quraishi said.

“We are at the doors of the big cities, we are at the doors of your  houses, so do not sleep and keep your necks covered,” he added – a  threat alluding to beheadings.

On Thursday, ISIS weekly propaganda al-Naba newspaper claimed its  militants had carried out 42 attacks in Iraq between May 7 and 13  alone – almost half of them in Diyala.

The latest Pentagon Inspector General report, covering January 1 to  March 31, said ISIS remnants are “regrouping and reforming” and  continue to pose a threat in both Iraq and Syria.

“US CENTCOM in February described ISIS as ‘regrouping and reforming’  in the Makhmour Mountains in northern Iraq, while the 2021 DoD budget  justification for overseas contingency operations said that ISIS is  expected to seek to re-establish governance in northern and western  areas of Iraq,” the Lead Inspector General’s report said.

According to the Pentagon report, Diyala has seen the highest  frequency of attacks over the first quarter of the year – 80 of the  250 total. The Diyala towns of Baqubah and Khanaqin suffered the  deadliest attacks.

Other attacks were reported in the provinces of Anbar, Kirkuk,  Nineveh, and Saladin.

Iraq’s former defense minister Najah al-Shammari said in April the  government would “ramp up” anti-ISIS efforts to prevent the group  capitalizing on the coronavirus crisis. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the new prime minister, has made combatting ISIS a cornerstone of his government’s agenda. Source