Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reinforce the Iraq-Syria border, February 19, 2019. Photo: Iraq Defense Ministry video
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Baghdad has deployed troop reinforcements to Iraq’s border with Syria to block a potential ISIS retreat from the Syrian village of Baghouz, where the jihadists are making their last stand against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said his government is monitoring the border and the situation closely.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that reinforcements have been sent to “secure” the border.
Infantry brigade 37 of the 9th armed division has been sent to the Iraq-Syria border to guard the area from the Euphrates River to al-Qaim, Anbar province.
The brigade is “reserve and backup” for the forces already stationed there, the Defense Ministry said.
“The aim is the total protection of the Iraq-Syria border to prevent the infiltration of Daesh terrorist gangs onto Iraqi soil,” the statement added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Concerning the border strip, all military sectors are in a position of total readiness. All weapons, machinations and vehicles are available as a precaution against some Daesh militants who have run away to cross or sneak into Iraq,” a brigadier general of the Jazira Operations Command said in a video released by the Defense Ministry on Tuesday.
“The heroes of the second division of infantry brigade 27 continue fortifying and solidifying the observation points,” an army colonel added.
An Iraqi soldier stands guard on the Iraq-Syria border, February 19, 2019. Photo: Iraq Defense Ministry video
Iraq’s National Security Council held a meeting chaired by PM Abdul-Mahdi on Tuesday to examine the condition of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces on the border.
The council will “monitor the border strip to prevent any infiltration cases onto Iraqi soil,” according to a readout from the PM’s office. The council passed the “Strategy of Fighting Violent Extremism Leading to Terror.”
In his weekly press conference on Tuesday night, Abdul-Mahdi said: “We are examining the situation and follow intensely what is going on.”
“We will wait until tomorrow to see if there are really efforts to finish things whether Daesh surrenders or fighting will resume. In all cases, Iraq is interested in this. Many of these [ISIS] fighters are Iraqis,” he said.
Iraq is “wary” of ISIS fighters crossing into Iraq, but the group has already suffered a “very heavy blow” on the border, the PM added.
ISIS militants are making their last stand against the SDF in the village of Baghouz in Syria’s east.
The SDF says it will defeat the group in a matter of days, but its efforts to protect civilians held by the group have slowed its final push.
On Monday, an unnamed US military official told CNN that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters have “likely” fled to Iraq’s mountains and deserts carrying with them up to $200 million in cash in the last 6 months.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s former prime minister, declared the defeat of ISIS in Iraq in November 2017. However, the defeat has only been territorial. ISIS militants have reverted to their older, pre-‘caliphate’ insurgency tactics of hit-and-run, IEDs, and kidnappings.
On Tuesday, the Abbas Combat Division, a Shiite paramilitary group, announced on its Facebook page that its medic teams had helped the Nakhib Police Center in Anbar transfer the bodies of six civilians murdered by ISIS militants in the mostly-desert province bordering Syria.
Hussein al-Aakidy, mayor of Rawa, told Iraqi channel al-Ayyam TV on Tuesday that five civilians kidnapped last Thursday in al-Haditha district in Anbar had been rescued from ISIS by Iraqi Security Forces.
According to a statement from the Security Media Center of Iraq’s Interior Ministry, quoted by state media, 12 individuals were kidnapped in Nakhib while looking for desert truffles. A search and rescue operation is ongoing.
On February 8, the bodies of three more Iraqis kidnapped by ISIS in the Makhoul mountain range in Saladin province were also discovered.
Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament who is originally from Anbar, condemned the killing of civilians. In a statement on Wednesday, he urged the public not to trek deep into desert areas where they could become “easy prey for terrorists.”
Last updated 3.18 p.m.