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Border calm precarious as Iraq's Anbar revives, slowly

An airstrike on militias raises tension across the border in Syria, while Qaim, Iraq, is reviving gradually after years of being under control of terrorist groups.

QAIM, Iraq — Cross-border artillery shelling still shakes the Anbar province border city of Qaim at night, as fighting continues against Islamic State (IS) pockets north of the Euphrates River in Syria.

When still-unidentified aircraft struck a base June 17 used by Shiite militias consisting mostly of Iraqi fighters in al-Heri, south of the Euphrates in Syrian regime-held territory, the dozens of dead and wounded fighters were taken across the border into Iraq to the sole functioning hospital in Qaim, still under rehabilitation.

The US-led anti-IS coalition has denied that it was involved, and as Al-Monitor reported, some say that the airstrike was likely conducted by Israel. No confirmation was forthcoming, however, and the incident was only the latest potential powder keg threatening a still-precarious peace in the crucial border area.

Asaad Khalaf, a doctor and director of the hospital to which the dead and injured were sent, confirmed to Al-Monitor that the fighters had been brought there for emergency treatment but had not been authorized to give any details on their nationalities or other information.

Inhabitants of the town claim there were Afghans and Iranians among the dead and that the fighters regularly use the desert border south of Qaim to cross into Syria with the knowledge of the forces stationed in the area.

Money-sending hawala outfits, sellers of chicken roasting on the spit, vendors of Zain (the only phone service available in the area) and men’s clothing shops flaunting pastel dishdashas line the streets beside destroyed buildings under the sweltering Anbar summer sun.

The fruit and vegetable markets on the main street of the town were doing a bustling trade during a visit over several days in late June by Al-Monitor, while the one hospital that was not destroyed in the fighting had undergone some renovations since this reporter’s last visit in February. The hospital — where the injured fighters were brought — does not have enough doctors or specialized staff for the local population's needs.

The entire city lacks basic services, including sufficient electricity and clean water. On one of the days Al-Monitor spent in the city, the central police station did not have electricity.

The entrance to the center of the city — just past another former, entirely destroyed multilevel hospital — is marked by a large photo of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flanked by Iraqi army vehicles and the national flag painted on walls, the words “Allahu Akbar” in the center in fresh bright green paint.

This reporter was the only Western journalist to accompany Iraqi military units during the operations in both Rawa and Qaim, with the latter being retaken on Nov. 5, 2017.

Due to the destruction of several bridges, forces during the Rawa operation were required to use a heavily damaged bridge from Qaim to the poorer Roumana area north of the Euphrates, an area sliding into a vast insurgent-prone desert northward toward Mosul, and then curve back around to head east along the river to Rawa.

Suicide attacks occurred on military convoys that made their way through the desert terrain, including one only a few minutes before Al-Monitor’s arrival at one of the locations held by the forces at that time.

Rawa was the last major urban center held by IS in the country and retaken by Iraqi forces on Nov. 17, 2017.

The bridge had been fixed by June 24 when Al-Monitor visited the area north of the Euphrates again, in Roumana and Baghouz flanking the border held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other side.

These rural areas, according to Col. Raed Abdullah Mohamed, the emergency police battalion commander responsible for the area, have long been known for their support of IS and al-Qaeda.

Inhabitants of the area told Al-Monitor that some of their male relatives had been arrested during the operation, almost eight months before, and that they still had no information on where the men were or whether they had been put on trial or sentenced.

They also complained that there are no doctors in Roumana and Baghouz and said they did not have the money to travel for much-needed medical care.

The two main local Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Kataeb al-Hamza and Liwa Aaly al-Furat, are still present in the city, as are the police, the army and nonlocal PMUs.

Many in the town are unhappy with the nonlocal PMUs but see no way of getting them to leave.

Police Chief Col. Aref Ibrahim Abed told Al-Monitor that all nonlocal PMUs were outside of the city, an assertion denied by several people in the town.

Liwa Aaly al-Furat commander Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly told Al-Monitor that concerns had risen after the airstrike just across the border, noting that the nonlocal PMUs — which he has long said are potentially a problem in the area — were still in the town as of late June.

He added that several international coalition forces continued to be stationed just outside of Qaim, with a training and advisory role.

The Kataeb al-Hamza leader, a former SWAT commander known as Abu Aya from the Albu Mahal tribe, said the situation was worse, because IS is in the area now.

He added, “They came from the Tadmoor [Palmyra] area, via the desert” area under the Syrian regime control.

Abu Aya decried the airstrike just across the border, however, saying that he did not understand why whoever it was that had conducted it had chosen to hit “those fighting IS instead of IS.”

His Albu Mahal tribe was long at odds with the Karbala tribe — the Liwa Aaly al-Furat commander’s tribe — but both men say that all the local tribes have been working closely together since IS appeared.

The situation in such a key area — a “meeting point for several international interests and powers,” as Karbouly noted — remains precarious for geopolitical reasons, but security is good at the moment.

The danger, Karbouly stressed, is that so many rival forces — the Syrian regime, the Kurdish-led SDF, the international coalition, the Iraqi army and pro-Iran militias on the side of the Syrian regime — are all within a small geographical area nearby, alongside IS-held pockets of territory.

Peace in the Iraqi border city of Qaim is nevertheless holding, for now.

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