Iraqi forces seek to build on Will of Victory gains
Iraqi forces are working to preserve and further the security gains they achieved during the recently-concluded Will of Victory campaign to clear Anbar's western desert of "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) presence and activity.
The Joint Operations Command intends to prevent the desert from being used as a safe haven for ISIS remnants, local officials and leaders told Diyaruna.
The command is continuing its efforts to control territory in the aftermath of the campaign by sustaining operational momentum in the heart of the desert and cornering ISIS elements who remain at large for the time being.
'Preserving positive outcomes'
Its core vision regarding the western desert is "preserving the positive outcomes of the fourth phase of the Will of Victory campaign, as well as previous campaigns", said Anbar provincial council member Mohammed al-Dulaimi.
This will be achieved by "maintaining absolute control of the desert area and facing the challenge of the vastness of that area, which comprises a third of the entire land mass of the country", he told Diyaruna.
This poses a challenge, he said, as the terrain is rugged and there are numerous valleys, caves and highland areas where militants can find hiding places.
The area's proximity to the border with Syria also presents a challenge, he said.
Before ISIS overran Anbar in the summer of 2014, al-Dulaimi said, "this desert sheltered terrorists, and all their attacks targeting cities would be launched from their bases located there".
"They would also kidnap merchants, contractors and businessmen and hold them prisoner in the desert and demand ransom," he said.
Following Anbar's liberation, he said, security forces have been very active in routing ISIS remnants from the desert areas.
The fourth phase of the Will of Victory campaign, which began August 24th and concluded August 27th, was part of these efforts, he added.
During this campaign, 16 villages and desert locations in an area of more than 4,000 square kilometres were searched and six tunnels, 25 hideouts, 19 suicide belts and 33 explosive devices were destroyed, he said.
Security forces also arrested eight ISIS elements, he said.
Keeping up the pressure
"As part of the campaign, territory that was off limits to security units since 2003 was searched and secured," said Sheikh Abdullah al-Jughaifi, a tribal leader from the western town of Haditha.
Efforts are currently focused on keeping up the search and tracking operations with air surveillance, and combing border towns to prevent supplies and logistical support from reaching ISIS remnants in the desert, he told Diyaruna.
"The security pressure will deprive terrorists from any chance to stay alive in light of the harsh climate conditions of the desert coupled with scarcity of food and water," he added.
Iraqi forces will be providing more protection for shepherds and bedouins to discourage future attacks, extortion attempts and the theft of their supplies, livestock and drinking water needed to survive in the harsh environment.
As part of efforts to secure the desert, security forces have started to track and register nomads and transfer them to designated areas that are directly secured by the forces, al-Jughaifi said.
The objective is to "save the lives of shepherds and inhabitants of the desert area, who were an easy target for ISIS elements", Anbar provincial council member Karim al-Karbouli told Diyaruna.
Many of these people have been co-operating with the security forces by informing them of the activities of ISIS remnants, he said.
"The goal is also to obstruct the covert movement of terrorists," he said, noting that some ISIS elements disguise themselves as shepherds to avoid detection.
"The fourth phase of the Will of Victory campaign, and previous security campaigns, have hindered terrorist plans to regain their strength and block them from having a safe haven in the desert," al-Karbouli said.
"ISIS remnants have lost everything they have in the western Anbar desert."