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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Iraqi forces capture town in new operation to drive ISIL from areas near Syria

Drive towards Al Qaim targets one the last two ISIL enclaves in Iraq

Iraqi forces outside the town of Akashat in Anbar province on September 15, 2017 as they prepare for a military operation to drive ISIL from nearby areas. Moadh Al Dulaimi / AFP
Iraqi forces outside the town of Akashat in Anbar province on September 15, 2017 as they prepare for a military operation to drive ISIL from nearby areas. Moadh Al Dulaimi / AFP

Iraqi forces on Saturday captured an ISIL desert outpost near the Syrian border in preparation for a drive up the Euphrates Valley towards the frontier, as Syrian government forces launched an offensive from the opposite side.

The capture of Akashat, a former mining town in mainly Sunni Arab Anbar province, came just hours after the Iraqi forces launched their assault. It was the first Iraqi operation against ISIL since the northern city of Tal Afar was retaken from the militants last month.

The Iraqi military said the offensive aims to retake militant-held towns in the Euphrates river valley including Al Qaim, which along with Rawa and Anna downstream forms one of just two enclaves still held by ISIL in Iraq.

"The army, the Hashed Al Shaabi and the border guard launched a major operation to liberate Akashat and secure the border to its north," said General Abdelamir Yarallah, head of the Joint Operations Command for the campaign against ISIL.

The Hashed Al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, is a paramilitary force comprised mainly of Iran-trained Shiite militias but also includes some fighters recruited from Sunni tribes.

Iran-backed militants are also involved in an offensive to take ISIL positions on the Syrian side of the same border area, which are also the target of the US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

An alliance of Shiite militias fighting with the Syrian army said it launched an assault on Saturday to reach Albu Kamal, the Syrian border town on the Euphrates that faces Al Qaim.

Securing Albu Kamal is important for Iran as the two other main crossings from Iraq into Syria, to the north and to the south, are under the control of forces allied with the United States.

Securing a land corridor across Iraq could make it easier for Iran to ferry heavy weapons to Syria should Baghdad approve such transfers. The Shiite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad has good relations with both Tehran and Washington.

The Russian- and US-backed campaigns against ISIL in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other's way as the sides seek to avoid conflict, with the Euphrates often acting as a dividing line between them.

But a senior aide to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has said his government was ready to fight the SDF to recapture the entire country.

The cross-border "caliphate" declared by ISIL in 2014 in effect collapsed in July, when a US-backed Iraqi offensive captured Mosul, the militants' capital in Iraq.

Iraqi commanders estimate that ISIL still has more than 1,500 fighters in its Al Qaim enclave.

The extremist group controls another enclave west of the ethnically divided Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, centred on the mainly Sunni Arab town of Hawija, but an offensive there has been delayed by a dispute over a Kurdish independence referendum planned for later this month.

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