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Local Iraqi forces testing IS defenses in Anbar

US-trained, local tribal fighters are preparing to cleanse Iraq's Anbar province of the Islamic State.

SAGRA (WESTERN ANBAR), Iraq — Former teachers, policemen, tradesmen and others from tribal areas still under Islamic State (IS) control are receiving training close to the front line in Iraq's westernmost region.

They will be essential to the fight against IS in this area and are providing critical intelligence on the areas to be retaken, noted Col. Ali Fendi, the commander of the Iraqi army's 1st brigade, 7th division, who has been in charge of this front since January.

The forces are currently conducting lightning ops close to nearby IS-held cities "to see what their reactions are and to draw fighters out of their hiding places" before pulling back, said the head of one of the local forces, Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly. Afterward, "international coalition airstrikes hit and gradually eliminate ever more fighters. … IS is on the defensive and is getting ever weaker."

On Aug. 21, jets dropped thousands of leaflets on the western Anbar towns of al-Qaim, Ana and Rawa, which are still under IS control. The leaflets reportedly give information on Iraqi forces' latest gains and call on IS to surrender.

A vast desert stretches in all directions around the base, which is the closest in western Anbar to IS positions. 

The temperature was over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) during Al-Monitor's visit in early August. When a soldier on lookout duty handed his binoculars to this reporter on the roof of a building, reached by an unsteady ladder, all that was visible was a slightly undulating sandy expanse, jagged in spots.

In the operations command below, the walls are crowded with photos of central government authorities and officers deployed on this front. Fendi said Al-Monitor was the first international media outlet to have visited the area around Sagra and Zawiya since they were retaken by government forces in January 2017.

He added that, although IS was mostly on the defensive, attacks continued. About a month prior, several explosive-laden vehicles had attempted to reach their base from the nearest village entirely controlled by IS — about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) away, the Iraqi colonel said — through a dusty expanse marked by many wadis (valleys and ravines that are dry except in the rainy season) serving as ideal hiding places.

"Seven suicide vehicles started coming toward the base at 6:30 a.m. and were only spotted 3 kilometers [2 miles] away due to a dust storm. We called in airstrikes and killed over 35 IS members," Fendi said. "Some were in the vehicles and some were killed trying to escape."

Though in that incident they had not had advance knowledge of the attack, often the local forces being trained by US, Danish and British forces at the nearby Ain al-Asad base receive advance information from sources inside their hometowns or from sources in contact with people across the border in Syria.

"They send men here from [the Syrian IS-held cities of] Abu Kamal, al-Mayadeen or other places when there is an attack by Iraqi forces," Karbouly said, "and from here to the other side of the border when they need men there."

To the question of whether they were in contact with the Syrian regime or Syrian opposition groups — given their proximity to the border (which IS does not recognize) — Karbouly said that "we do not speak to Jabhat al-Nusra or the regime," but that they do have contact with members in Syrian opposition groups originally from IS-held areas near the border.

"But not in an official manner," he noted. "These are people [and their extended family members] we knew from before."

Karbouly, a former police captain from the Iraqi town of al-Qaim on the Syrian border, is now known as Col. Moussa and is the founder and commander of the group Liwa al-Aaly al-Furat (Upper Euphrates Regiment).

The group works alongside the Iraqi army and the "Gharbiya" forces (literally "Western," in reference to the fact that they are fighting in the westernmost part of the country) from Rawa and Ana, the two largest IS-held towns before reaching al-Qaim border crossing, located just across the border from the Syrian city of Abu Kamal.

Many of the men had no prior military experience but are currently receiving training from the international coalition at the nearby Ain al-Asad base.

Karbouly said that about 250 of Liwa al-Aaly al-Furat's 500 men had been trained by Danish special forces and were taking part in operations alongside the Iraqi army. He noted that his force was unique in that — unlike some of the tribal forces — it was being trained as an assault force and not just one whose main role would be providing security in the towns retaken.

He added that they were being provided "very good equipment and supplies" by US forces and that their latest mission had been two days prior to an interview with Al-Monitor on Aug. 9.

"We went as far as 1.5 kilometers from Ana, at an intersection of the road to the city, to see the reaction of IS forces. They left their homes and caves to fight, and then the air forces struck them," he said. He added that operations like these provided key information about roughly how many fighters were present and what sort of weapons they have.

Several of the men in his forces wear officer uniforms and have been given their ranks as part of their current role, but have not actually attended any sort of military academy.

Karbouly said that his group was an attempt to gather together the various tribes of al-Qaim under one banner, to avoid being simply a "tribal militia."

As a police captain in al-Qaim in the past, he said he had seen many problems between tribes resulting in some joining extremist groups simply to exact revenge on other tribes. He stressed that he hoped this force could help bring the entire community together.

Karbouly also noted that they are part of the Popular Mobilization Units and are receiving salaries from the government, but that many had formerly been schoolteachers and tradesmen.

His deputy, Col. Abdurahman al-Karbouly, is also originally from al-Qaim and fought during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. He was later a commander of the Anbar Awakening in Rutba, where he lived for an extended period, but also did not attend a military academy.

Fendi said that "the main role of the Iraqi army is to protect civilians" and that the local forces would be key to doing this in such a sensitive area.

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