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Kadhimi orders Iraqi forces to fortify border with Syria: spokesperson

Iraq’s prime minister has ordered the armed forces to tighten security on the border with Syria to prevent infiltration of Islamic State (ISIS) militants into the country ahead of planned military operations along the border.

“The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, directed [Iraqi security forces] to focus on protecting the border areas with Syria, arbitrating them, and heavily fortifying them, in addition to continuing with specific operations based on intelligence information and intelligence efforts,” Yehia Rasool, military spokesperson for Kadhimi, told state media on Sunday.

The 605-kilometre long frontier is secured by three branches of Iraqi security forces: the army, Popular Mobilization Forces [PMF, known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic], and border security units, Rasool explained. The different forces have already constructed “many military fortifications” on the border, including trenches, observation towers, setting up cameras, and positioning heavy weapons.

ISIS was declared territorially defeated in Iraq in December 2017 and in Syria in March 2019. The group has, however, continued to wage a low intensity insurgency in both countries, exploiting security vacuums between rival forces.

Iraq’s disputed territories, which Erbil and Baghdad have long contested, and some western Sunni-majority regions including Anbar, have seen a recent uptick in ISIS activities, including bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, extortion, and arson.

According to an intelligence assessment by the Center for Global Policy in May, ISIS has 3,500 to 4,000 active and 8,000 inactive militants in Iraq.

The recent wave of ISIS attacks comes as the US and the international anti-ISIS coalition draw down and consolidate their missions in both Iraq and Syria.

Coalition forces have been in Iraq since 2014 to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS. Over the border, they have also been partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Now the coalition believes ISIS has been degraded to such a point that foreign troops are able to reduce their commitments and hand over control to local forces. Some coalition troops have also been redeployed to their home countries to help with domestic responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coalition has handed over control of eight military bases to the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) this year.

The reduced military supervision could present ISIS remnants in Iraq and Syria with a unique opportunity to launch more frequent attacks and expand their influence, particularly in Iraq’s disputed territories. Jabar Yawar, secretary general at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, warned in April that the ISIS resurgence has been underway for some time.

“According to our data, the group increased its activities in 2018 and 2019, especially in Kurdistani areas outside of the Kurdistan Region administration, including Diyala, Hamrin, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu, and Qarachogh. In Qarachogh, they even established bases,” Yawar told Rudaw.

There were more than 400 ISIS-claimed or suspected attacks in Iraq between April and June according to a recent Pentagon Inspector General report, up from the 250 attacks recorded in the first three months of 2020.

Most frequently hit was the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, where the Pentagon reported 150 of the quarter’s attacks had taken place. Other attacks were reported in the provinces of Kirkuk, Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahaddin. Source