There is no doubt in most Iraqis’ minds that the extremist group known as the Islamic State is weakening in their country. The extremist group sparked a security crisis in Iraq starting from June 2014 and pro-government forces and an international alliance have been fighting against the militia almost ever since then.
And now that the group is losing its hold over many parts of the country it controlled, it appears to be pulling back to a former stronghold in the Iraqi town of Al Qaem, in Anbar province about 20 kilometres from the Iraq-Syria border.
“Everybody believes that the Islamic State group’s main base is in Mosul. But they are wrong,” Ibrahim al-Jughaifi , one of the tribal fighters in nearby Haditha, who, together with other tribal fighters and the Iraqi army, has repelled many attempts by the nearby extremists to take over that city too; Haditha is about 150 kilometres from Al Qaem. “The group’s main force is now located in Al Qaem on the Syrian border.”
“The extremist group is sick and weak,” al-Jughaifi told NIQASH. “But it is preparing a large army in Al Qaem and as long as this area is under the Islamic State’s control, they will be a threat to all in Anbar province.”
The Islamic State, or IS, group has been in control of the Al Qaem area since August 2014, when the extremists declared they were establishing their own country. The new Islamic State, they announced, would stretch from the Syrian border town, Albu Kamal, to Iraq’s Al Qaem. But since then, Al Qaem has hardly been in the headlines. The only way anyone gets information about the relatively isolated border town is via propaganda material coming from the IS group itself, in which one can see the city’s streets, its inhabitants and information on the individuals that the IS group has punished or killed.
Al Qaem is the head of the snake that is the Islamic State. Cutting off this head would end the extremist group.
A local man who was in Al Qaem in mid-2014 when the IS group first arrived told NIQASH it was very frightening at that time. “Members of the IS group entered the city’s largest mosque and shouted to everyone there: Now you can travel to Syria without a passport because, thanks be to God, we have managed to remove the borders established by the infidel crusaders,” said the man, who escaped the city and is now living in relative safety in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Apparently the IS group did not have a great deal of difficulty gaining control of Al Qaem. Because the city is around 400 kilometres away from Baghdad and because it’s security situation was never the best, it had long been a haven for extremist Sunni Muslim fighters.
Two tribes share power in the Al Qaem area, the Albu Mahal and the al-Karbouli tribes. Both groups have been engaged in territorial battles for influence for years, both in terms of political and military power. When the US army created the Awakening, or Sahwa, forces in the area, enlisting the help of local tribesmen to try and expel Al Qaeda, the Albu Mahal tribe signed up. So when Al Qaeda was defeated by the Awakening forces around 2007, this tribe grew more powerful. However, since the IS group – Al Qaeda in Iraq was a forerunner of the group – has been in charge, the al-Karbouli tribe has had more power; they refused to join the Awakening forces.
The IS group has been able to exploit the differences between the two tribes in Al Qaem for their own purposes and eventually forced all of the local tribes to swear allegiance to the them.
But there are also further reasons as to why Al Qaem is so valuable to the IS group. It is surrounded by fertile agricultural land so in case of a blockade, the city would not be cut off from food supplies. It is also surrounded by large uninhabited areas, with hills, plateaus and canyons, as well as a number of natural tunnels. This means that weapons can be stored all around the area and that IS fighters can move through the tunnels without being spotted by fighter jets or drones.
According to a senior officer in Iraqi military intelligence who could not be named for security reasons, the IS group has now moved some of its most important operations to Al Qaem. Its leaders are here in secret headquarters and they hold regular meetings with many senior members of the group. Al Qaem also hosts some of the extremists’ largest factories for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices. Volunteers from all over the world are brought here to sign up and train.
“We have received intelligence reports that confirm that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been living there for the past few months, not in Mosul or Raqqa,” the officer told NIQASH. “We almost killed him a few months ago during an air raid.”
Last Sunday the Iraqi military were luckier. An air raid on Al Qaem saw several IS leaders killed, including the man known as Abu Harith al-Rawi, who oversaw the extremist group’s security.
Despite the fact that the extremist group has withdrawn to Al Qaem, the city still poses dangers to them, especially from former members of the Awakening forces. Many have been executed already because the IS group doesn’t trust them. But, according to the source in Iraqi military intelligence, there are still anti-IS spies in Al Qaem.
“With the help of local tribes and US forces, we have been able to penetrate the IS group,” he said. “We have secret informants who are working with the IS group. But it’s very dangerous. A few weeks ago, one of our informants was discovered and executed.”
“Al Qaem is the key to Anbar’s security,” argues Ahmad al-Salmani, an MP for Anbar province, and a former resident of Al Qaem. “The IS group’s control of the city means that danger is still there. The Iraqi army must push the IS group out of Al Qaem and reinstate the border with Syria.”
However this campaign would have certain problems. At the moment the main attack on Al Qaem is coming from above. Air raids are being conducted but by all accounts, they are not always effective as the IS fighters are either hiding among the civilian population or in natural underground bunkers.
And then there’s Al Qaem’s distance from any military bases, says Omar al-Obaidi, a captain in the Iraqi army’s 7th division. His troops are deployed at the Ain al-Asad military base together with US and other international soldiers.
“The battle for Al Qaem is not going to be easy,” he told NIQASH. “And it would be very different from the battles in Ramadi, Fallujah and in Salahaddin province. The nearest army base is Ain al-Asad and that is 150 kilometres away. If we decided on a ground attack too, this long distance would be extremely tiring and there would certainly be surprise attacks by extremists hiding along the way.”
Al-Obeidi believes that any fight for Al Qaem could be won though, particularly if there is US air cover provided for the Iraqi military. “Al Qaem is the head of the snake that is the Islamic State,” al-Obeidi told NIQASH. “Cutting off its head would end the IS group and make Al Qaem into a graveyard for its leaders and its fighters.”
The other big problem is Al Qaem’s proximity to the Syrian border. Extremists would be able to escape into the other country and then return at will, somewhere along the length of the 600 kilometre border that Iraq shares with Syria here.
When US troops were stationed in Iraq, there were as many as 40,000 soldiers in Anbar province alone as well as a full squadron of fighter planes. The Iraqi army doesn’t have those kinds of capabilities.
But as Sabah Karhout, who heads Anbar’s provincial council, says: “In many ways though, protecting Iraq’s borders with Syria here is much more important than pushing the IS group out of other cities.”