Iraq’s military announced a new operation in an attempt to secure the vast western desert leading to the Syrian border, amid fears Islamic State sleeper cells were using the area to regroup.
The operation, dubbed “Will of Victory,” began early Sunday, July 7, and would push to clear the remote territory between the provinces of Salahaddin, Nineveh and Anbar, a statement by the military said.
Iraqi armed forces, paramilitary units of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units), tribal groups and U.S.-led Coalition warplanes were all taking part, according to the statement.
“There are pockets of Daesh fighters in the northwestern, western, and southwestern parts of Salahaddin province,” a media official from the province’s military command told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Daesh is still present in these areas, and the operations will continue until they are cleared.”
Iraq formally declared victory against ISIS in late 2017, a few months after ousting the jihadist group from its seat of power in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province.
The group lost its last sliver of territory in Syria – Baghuz, a small desert hamlet near the Iraqi border – in March.
But ISIS sleeper cells have kept up hit-and-run attacks in isolated parts of Iraq, targeting government checkpoints, public infrastructure and local officials.
Security analyst Hisham al-Hashemi said “Will of Victory” was aimed at depriving ISIS of the resources it uses to carry out those raids.
“It will drain Daesh’s logistical support in an area that makes up nearly a quarter of Iraq, by destroying their bases, training camps, depots and tunnels,” he told AFP.
He said security forces were seeking to oust an estimated 1,000 ISIS fighters from the desert regions around Baaj, Rawah and Tharthar.
Iraq’s security forces have targeted ISIS in several coalition-backed operations in recent months, including in the rugged Hamrin region north of Baghdad.
In May, they armed tribal forces in several dozen villages in Nineveh province to enable populations to defend themselves against insurgent attacks.
With reporting from AFP