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Premature Congratulation:
The Islamic State Group Lives On - In Iraq’s Deserts

Kamal al-Ayash
Anbar’s western desert is a hiding place for the Islamic State group, locals say. And they fear the extremists will be back as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
13.12.2017  |  Anbar
Propaganda pictures from the IS group's media, showing fighters in the desert.
Propaganda pictures from the IS group's media, showing fighters in the desert.

Last week the Iraqi government declared victory over the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But, according to locals and military personnel living in the Anbar province, that declaration was premature.

“I have seen no genuine indications that this province is rid of the Islamic State group,” says Ayad al-Nimrawi, a 43-year-old who runs a restaurant in the Kilo area, about 160 kilometres along the road between Baghdad and the Syrian-Jordanian border. “I still see commercial trucks accompanied by security details when they come along here. Even the security forces cannot travel down here alone, they require extra protection.”

No country – not even European nations – can claim they are completely clean of Islamic State members.

“I will only feel that we have won the final victory when I see life returning to this road as it was before the Islamic State came. We used to travel here at night without any fear of armed groups but today this international road is almost completely closed. As soon as dusk falls, this road is a death trap.”  

The victory celebrations were not about the complete eradication of the IS group, rather they were meant to be a signal about the end of military operations, suggests Tariq Yusef al-Asal, a police chief and one of the leaders of Anbar’s tribal militias fighting the Islamic State. “We have the right to be proud of the victories achieved by our security forces in the fighting that’s gone on over three years,” he told NIQASH. “We have sovereignty over our land again.”

However, he adds, “it would be stupid to say that Iraq is now completely clean of extremist groups like the Islamic State. There are still sleeper cells and incubators inside and outside our cities.”

“No country – not even European nations – can claim they are completely clean of Islamic State members,” he continued. “Those sleeper cells will keep the organisation alive and sustain it. These groups make good use of any security vacuum in any country to try and achieve their aims.”

It is not correct to say that there are no extremist groups in the area anymore, agrees Rutba's mayor, Imad al-Dulaimi. The Rutba area, 450 kilometres west of Baghdad, is still being attacked regularly by extremist fighters.  

 

The Iraqi army in Anbar.

 

“The massive deployment of Iraqi security forces in this area made the Islamic State group disappear,” al-Dulaimi explains. “But then the military went without leaving any replacements and without totally eliminating the fighters in the desert, so there are plenty of excellent opportunities for the extremists to return again.”

The Anbar intelligence services have had plenty of information about the presence of the Islamic State group in the vast desert around Anbar, a source inside the services says.

Anbar has a long border, that sees over 1,000 kilometres of desert overlapping with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, that is almost impossible to secure.

“The movements of the Islamic State are continuously being monitored,” the intelligence insider told NIQASH. “Its members move freely in the desert though, knowing it is almost impossible for security forces to chase them in these very vast areas.”

Up until now the military on the borders between Iraq and Syria have tended to build dirt berms and erect concrete barriers to demarcate the border and try to keep outsiders from crossing. “But if there are no manned border posts to monitor or respond to any breach, then those measures are not enough to stop the terrorists infiltrating,” the source added. “It would be difficult to achieve any kind of control anyway,” he concluded, “the Islamic State is still present all over this entire desert.” 

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