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Iraqi Military Launches Operation Against IS Remnants

FILE - An Iraqi army soldier stands guard near a U.S.-made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, Iraq, Feb. 13, 2018.
FILE - An Iraqi army soldier stands guard near a U.S.-made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, Iraq, Feb. 13, 2018.

Iraq's military and allied militias have launched a new security operation against remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in a northeastern province.

The military campaign, supported by airpower from the Iraqi air force, is focused on eliminating active IS cells in the restive province of Diyala, Iraqi military officials said.

"The security units have begun the mission of searching and purging the mountain range surrounding Hamrin Lake and adjacent areas … in Diyala," Iraqi military spokesman Yahya Rasool said on Twitter Sunday.

At least five IS terrorists have been killed and four of their hideouts were destroyed in the multiday campaign, Rasool said.

The Iraqi official added that pro-government Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, also destroyed several vehicles belonging to IS militants in Diyala.

Despite its territorial defeat, IS remains active in several provinces of Iraqi's north, particularly in areas that are considered "disputed" between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Last month, IS militants carried out multiple attacks against security forces and civilians in the area, including an attack in the province of Salahuddin that killed seven members of a family.

Counterinsurgency challenges

Hussein Ali Allawi, professor of national security at Nahrain University in Baghdad, says the ongoing operation in Diyala province "has achieved effective goals in uncovering the terrorist nests that are being exploited by the terrorist group as a depth for its movement and its rapid attacks."

Allawi, who is also an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, told VOA that such counterterrorism efforts could end the local remnants of IS in Iraq.

"Activating intelligence operations and accelerating the return of displaced residents will be instrumental in creating an appropriate environment for Iraqi citizens in these areas to inform the Iraqi forces about the movement of Daesh remnants," he added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Other experts, however, believe the fact that IS elements have resorted to fighting as an underground insurgency makes it difficult for the Iraqi military to counter them effectively.

"They operate as a cartel, which is really challenging for the Iraqi security apparatus," said Rasha Al Aqeedi, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington.

"I'm aware that Iraqi security forces have networks of informants that gather intelligence about ISIS and its activity, but I don't think these networks are well-developed to counter the ongoing insurgency in these areas," she told VOA, using another acronym for IS.

US withdrawal

The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq. U.S. forces were deployed to Iraq in 2014 at the request of the Iraqi government to assist in the fight against IS.

Following a round of strategic talks, the U.S. and Iraq last week announced plans to move the remaining U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.

"Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces), the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq," the two countries said in a joint statement.

The statement added that the timing for the U.S. withdrawal will "be established in upcoming technical talks."

U.S. military officials said the Global Coalition against IS continues to advise its Iraqi partners and increase their "capacity to conduct operations against Daesh."

"We provide support with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, equipment, advice, planning and air strikes when requested," Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told VOA.