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Iraq struggling to fight Daesh in vast Anbar deserts

Image of US and Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar, Iraq on 20 May 2005 [Michael A. Blaha/Wikipedia ]
US and Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar, Iraq on 20 May 2005 [Michael A. Blaha/Wikipedia ]

A day after an ambush by Daesh militants killed tens of Iraqi government soldiers and officers and wounded many more others, an Iraqi force has launched a counterattack against the "cells…and camps of the Daesh organisation" in the vast deserts of Iraq's western Anbar province.

Khalid Al-Anzi, the mayor of Haditha, one of Anbar's major cities in its western reaches, was cited by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed as saying that the Iraqi desert was too vast and posed geographic challenges to ever be placed fully under Baghdad's control.

Read: Baghdad says US promised continuing support for Iraq against Daesh

Haditha's mayor also indicated that several towns in Anbar were still under Daesh control, despite the ongoing operation in Mosul in northern Iraq. Al-Anzi said that Hasiba, Ana and Rawa, all major towns in Anbar, were still held by the militant group that swept across Iraq in 2014, capturing nearly a third of the war-ravaged country.

Al-Anzi also spoke of a joint taskforce of Iraqi government forces backed by local tribal auxiliaries:

The Iraqi Army's Seventh Division has set up a security taskforce comprised of men from the division as well as tribal fighters from the Baghdadi district. This force has now begun punishing operations against [Daesh] operatives in the western desert.

Daesh successfully managed to launch an ambush in the Anbar desert on an Iraqi military convoy over the weekend, killing and wounding around 50 troops loyal to the government.

US air support

Iraqi forces were backed by US-led coalition airpower as they advanced on Daesh positions operating in the deserts around Anbar's towns and villages.

"Coalition and Iraqi aircraft executed continuous strikes targeting [Daesh] groups inside Rawa, Hasiba and Ana," Al-Anzi told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. "These strikes were successfully carried out against large objectives, and caused heavy casualties within Daesh's ranks," the official said.

A local tribal commander from the city of Heet near Fallujah, Fadil Al-Heeti, said:

This operation is extremely important because it causes panic and discord within Daesh, and prevents them from any opportunities to conduct attacks against our cities.

Al-Heeti clarified that tribal fighters had not yet engaged Daesh fighters in combat, and were instead taking ground as the militants were withdrawing in the face of fierce airstrikes.

"Our forces have not engaged Daesh who have withdrawn after their initial advance, and that is because we do not want to fight in the open desert while warplanes are present," the commander said, adding, "Such operations may not be able to capture the desert, but they will at least lessen Daesh's presence and disrupt their plans to strike our positions."

Read: Former Iraqi VP Tariq Al Hashemi accuses PM of committing genocide in Mosul

Anbar has long been a hotbed of violence against first the US occupation after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then government forces. Though most of the anti-government groups in the desert are tribal fighters who resent the marginalisation of their community at the hands of the Shia-dominated Baghdad government, groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh have been known to operate in the remote desert.

Local Sunni Arab tribes had previously banded together and began fighting against Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups instead of the government in 2007, after the militants began targeting and killing locals who would not subscribe to their worldview. These tribes successfully defeated Al-Qaeda over a number of years, but then say that they were marginalised and targeted with assassinations by the authorities in Baghdad.

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