Iraqi border city eyes IS advance amid dust storms

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Article Summary
Iraqi security forces on Iraq's border with Syria have been placed on a higher level of alert amid an Islamic State advance on the Syrian side of the border.

Severe dust storms have facilitated advances by the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border in recent days, putting the largest Iraqi city alongside it at risk.

Otherworldly shades of red, orange and sandy yellow were an intermittent backdrop for days across most of western Anbar, with very low visibility rendering airstrikes and other coalition activities against the terrorist group still in control of Hejin across the border in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province difficult.

IS has retaken the entire Syrian side of the Baghouz area and the town of Soussa in recent days, Al-Monitor was told by security sources working near the border on Oct. 29.

US airstrikes in the past month in and near the town of Hejin have hit targets with reportedly large numbers of civilians in them, including mosques, possibly indicating a significant shift from long-standing counterinsurgency doctrines and tighter targeting rules.

On the Iraqi side of the border, al-Qaim remains calm but wary as IS pushes uncomfortably close.

Some IS rockets strayed into the Iraqi side of the Baghouz area from Syrian territory in early October, Al-Monitor was told by an officer when visiting the border fence there on Oct. 16.

This correspondent was able to spot positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other side at that time, but they have since pulled out, the officer added in a WhatsApp conversation on Oct. 29. He noted that several mortars had struck near the border area in recent days, but none had crossed into Iraq.

Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly, who leads the Sunni Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) force Aaly al-Furat Brigade, told Al-Monitor the same day that IS flags could clearly be seen on the other side of the border after SDF fighters abandoned their positions.

Meanwhile, the situation in al-Qaim is apparently calm but still lacking in services. Dozens of downed electricity pylons still flank the road just after the turnoff to the city of Anah to al-Qaim along the main road through the desert.

In a visit to al-Qaim on Oct. 16, Al-Monitor was told by Mayor Ahmed Jadeyan that a lack of electricity was still the most critical problem, although the lack of schools, employment and reconstruction were also reasons some inhabitants were not returning.

''Civilians are scared that IS will cross back from Syria,'' he also noted, estimating that about 60% of the population had returned to the city in the year since its liberation from IS.

Women, many of whom still wear niqabs, could be seen in the mornings on the main roads, but few were present in the early afternoons.

Regarding security, the city police chief claimed that "all the problems the police have dealt with recently in the city have been of a criminal and not a terrorist nature.”

Not far from the city, however, near the valuable Akkas gas field, two attacks in a single week led to the death of at least four officers in October. The area outside of the city is the responsibility of the army as well as local and non-local PMU.

Though the default assumption is that the culprit was IS, a police officer and others Al-Monitor spoke with claimed non-local PMU or others interested in controlling smuggling routes into Syria may be behind the attacks. Underlying tension between local and non-local security forces continues to be seen.

Police officer Maj. Bassam Mohamed Ibrahim al-Dulaimi said that though security in the area was relatively good, non-local PMU were a problem and would become more of one in the future.

Non-local PMU “Kata’ib Hezbollah [Hezbollah Brigades] and IS are two faces of the same coin,” he said, while officers surrounding him advised him not to say this in front of the media.

“We're all afraid of them,” he added, noting that at one point his car had been hit by Iranians driving a car with Iraqi license plates in the city linked to the non-local PMU.

He said that civilians have often called the police about Persian-speaking men wearing “Kandahari-style” clothes who had been seen in the market, but that “no one, not even the Iraqi government or the [United States], can do anything about it."

Meanwhile, violent crime that might or might not be linked to terrorism is not widely reported.

In August, a woman of around 60 years of age was shot point-blank in the forehead in Qaim, sources from the city told Al-Monitor. Asked about this case, officers said that some of her relatives had joined IS and are currently thought to be in IS-held Hejin across the border in Syria.

An officer tasked with the investigation told Al-Monitor that they had been unaware of any previous threats against her, adding that at least 350 families in al-Qaim with relatives who had joined IS had left during the liberation of the city.

A more recent incident involved the extrajudicial killing of a man allegedly by men driving a vehicle with PMU insignia.

In an interview in Karbala a few days before the incident, Qassim Musleh — the western Anbar commander for the PMU and leader of the non-local PMU Tufuf Brigade — had told Al-Monitor that he had information that attacks were being planned to use PMU vehicles and uniforms to conduct killings “so as to discredit the PMU” and its armed groups integrated into the national security forces.

The non-local PMU have in recent days urged for reinforcements to be called to the border area north of the Euphrates River. Until recently, border guards, the 8th Division of the army and local PMU Aaly al-Furat had full responsibility for that area.

Al-Monitor was told by a member of the local security forces that a small contingent of non-local PMU had been sent to the area by Oct. 29.

Although for the moment the combined Iraqi security forces in the area seem to be holding up well, any security breach due to a lack of cooperation or powerplays may lead to IS making headway into Iraq once again.

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Found in: Islamic State

Shelly Kittleson is a journalist specializing in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Her work has been published in several international, US and Italian media outlets.

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