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Iraqi military puts ISIS leaders in crosshairs

Iraqi forces are focusing their operations on leadership of the Islamic State (ISIS) group, using information provided by the national intelligence services as international forces of the US-led coalition continue to draw down.

“The operations carried out by the intelligence services and security forces are carried out according to the intelligence efforts and under the guidance of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and these operations target ISIS leaders,” defence ministry spokesperson Yehia Rasool told state-media on Friday.

Iraqi forces killed the ISIS wali (governor) of Baghdad, Omer Shalal Abid, in an operation announced on Wednesday, alongside two other ISIS members.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq in late 2017, Baghdad has conducted targeted military operations against small groups and sleepers cells throughout the country.

The most recent operation, launched on Saturday, saw Kurdish counter-terrorism units joining Iraqi forces to clear areas in Diyala province, eastern Iraq. The goal of this, the fourth phase of the ‘Heroes of Iraq’ operation, is to “pursue remnant terrorists and impose security and stability in Diyala province, as well as clearing and inspecting the border strip with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Abdul-Ameer Kamil al-Shamiri, deputy commander of Iraqi Joint Operations Command, announced at the time.

Phase one, announced in mid-May, included operations in Anbar, Nineveh, and Saladin provinces. Phase two began on June 2 and targeted ISIS holdouts on the fringes of Salahaddin and Kirkuk. The third phase covered Saladin, Diyala, Samarra, and Kirkuk provinces.

The US-led coalition provided Iraqi army units on the ground with air support alongside the Iraqi air force. The coalition has had troops on the ground in Iraq since 2014, training and advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS. Over the border, they have also collaborated with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In recent months, the coalition has withdrawn from several Iraqi bases and repositioned troops after successes in the campaign to defeat ISIS and to protect personnel amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, British troops withdrew from Taji military camp in northern Baghdad and handed over the training mission to Iraqi security forces, according to an official statement from the coalition.

The international forces have handed control of six other military bases to the Iraqis in the space of a month: Abu Ghraib near Baghdad, K1 in Kirkuk, al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah in western Iraq, al-Sqoor in Mosul, and al-Taqaddum in Anbar.

ISIS welcomed the withdrawal as an opportunity to spread its insurgency and has vowed to exploit the drawdown of coalition troops in Iraq, resuming hit-and-run tactics and torching farmers’ fields.

The militants have also carried out a spate of attacks on Iraqi security forces and units of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, also known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic).

On May 15, two soldiers were killed and four wounded when a convoy hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in northern Baghdad province, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the blast.

May was a deadly month. Ten PMF fighters were 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.

On Thursday, ISIS weekly propaganda al-Naba newspaper claimed its militants had carried out 23 attacks in Iraq between July 9 and 15 alone – mainly in Diyala. Source