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Islamic State kills Iraqi forces in sparsely populated Anbar desert

Attacks and unexploded ordnance continue to reap victims in Iraq’s vast western desert as security officials deny increased risks associated with a massive recent jailbreak across the border.
Iraqi soldiers secure buses transporting displaced families from the displaced persons camp in Habbaniyah in Iraq's Anbar province on Nov. 10, 2020.

BAGHDAD – The deaths of several soldiers in the western Anbar desert and attacks further south in the same province have drawn attention to the vast expanses that were long a hideout for insurgents. 

Although the danger had diminished in recent years, a Feb. 8 explosion reportedly killed at least three soldiers and one civilian, as well as injuring others and destroying the military vehicle in the desert near Rawa.

Several attacks have meanwhile recently been carried out near Rutba in the southern part of the Anbar desert, not far from Iraq’s border with Jordan.

Some claimed that the soldiers near Rawa had been escorting Kuwaiti or Qatari hunters and that the civilian killed had been the local guide. Questions to security officers had not been answered by the time of publication.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the incident.

However, a security source claimed that the incident, 8 km from the town of Rawa, was due to explosives that had been planted during the Islamic State (IS) occupation of the area.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that “the area is safe”.

But a security official from western Anbar instead claimed that “there are now close to a thousand” IS operating in the deserts of Anbar, Salah al-Din, and Nineveh, and that IS activities in the Anbar desert had been stepped up after a massive jailbreak in eastern Syria in recent weeks.

“But there is absolutely no danger of their taking any cities or any area,” he said. “The tribes, the local inhabitants — we fought against them and they will not return. They just kill a few people in the desert or attack the military, sometimes.”

Rawa was the last urban area to be retaken from IS in Iraq, on Nov. 17, 2017, after three and a half years under its control. At that time, the US-led international coalition against IS had conducted an airstrikes against car bombs and other attempted attacks on the large military convoys traversing the desert. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were a major problem then, slowing the military’s advance and leading to casualties. In December 2017 Iraq declared victory against IS.

Most of Anbar, which is Iraq’s largest province but sparsely populated, is desert land with many wadis long used by insurgents as hideouts.

In recent years, Anbar has not seen as many IS attacks as the Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, which continue to suffer from security gaps, poor coordination and trust deficits between the multiple forces operating on the ground. However, Anbar has at times been referred to as a “logistics hub” for IS in recent months.

There also continue to be tensions between the local inhabitants and some of the non-local security forces deployed to the area.

The border town of Qaim is key to supply lines between Iraq and Syria, and IS militants fought harder to hold onto it than to Rawa in 2017, prior to withdrawing into eastern Syria, where it was declared defeated in March 2019.

Thousands of Iraqi IS fighters are still held in detention facilities in northeastern Syria. Hundreds fled in a massive Jan. 20 jailbreak, and Iraq stepped up its border control.

During and after the 2017 liberation from IS, Qaim was also a focus of  Iran-linked armed factions, some of which were under the Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) but held to be operating largely independently. These factions are generally known as the muqawama, or resistance, led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Much of the area south of the city of Qaim to Rutba is under their control.

In an October 2018  interview in Karbala, PMU commander Qassim Musleh, the head of the Tufuf Brigade, had accused some of the 7th Division of “spying” on his forces.

The soldiers killed in the Feb. 8 explosion were from the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, which has a larger number of local Sunni officers than many other divisions.

In the same interview, Musleh also voiced common conspiracy theories espoused by ‘muqawama’ factions against the US and the international-led coalition.

Musleh was arrested in late May 2021 under Iraq’s antiterrorism law but released almost two weeks later.

An Iraqi security official has since claimed that Musleh carried a Syrian intelligence ID card that enabled him to move easily between the two countries, but that there was no evidence of his guilt in relation to the crimes he had initially been accused of.

Meanwhile, his Tufuf Brigade, as well as local tribal forces and the military and other security forces, are tasked with preventing any sort of resurgence of IS in the vast Anbar desert.

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