Iraqi forces launch battle against Islamic State positions in sprawling Anbar province
IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi forces backed by US airstrikes launched an assault on Islamic State in western Anbar province on Tuesday, breaching one of the last two militant strongholds in Iraq where the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, might be hiding.
A force made up of units from the army, police and tribal fighters from the area launched the attack at dawn near the town of Ana, located on the Euphrates about 60 miles from the border Syrian army, the Iraqi army said in a statement.
Additional troops from Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces are expected to join the fight as it moves west towards the border with Syria.
The battle for the last Islamic State strongholds in Anbar is expected to be complex due to the porous Syrian border and the vast desert terrain, which is difficult to encircle and smother. The challenges in Anbar are familiar to US forces after years of fighting al-Qaeda in the province a decade ago.
US intelligence officials estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 militants are in the area, moving easily between Anbar and the neighboring Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, which they still largely control.
Iraqi and American military officials said Baghdadi is likely entrenched in the area, moving between safe havens along the border.
There have been frequent claims that Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike, but the reports have not been substantiated. Last month, the outgoing commander of US coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said he believed Baghdadi was still alive, contradicting Russian claims that the militant leader was likely to have died in an airstrike. .
Tuesday’s announcement came without the usual fanfare that has accompanied such campaigns in the past, underscoring how Iraq has diminished Islamic State’s influence and territorial dominance in the country.
The Islamic State was expelled from 90% of the Iraqi towns and villages it held, including the northern city of Mosuland the launch of each battle was usually accompanied by a televised speech by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The Anbar campaign is expected to push west from Ana along the Euphrates to the city of Rawah and end at the border outpost of Qaim.
Brett McGurk, the White House envoy for the campaign against Islamic State, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday that “major operations” were underway in western Anbar. A spokesperson for the US-led coalition confirmed in a separate Twitter post that Iraqi forces were being supported by US airstrikes.
The Islamic State is now under pressure from three major offensives in one of its last major territorial possessions, the Euphrates Valley, which straddles Iraq and Syria. From the west, Syrian regime forces backed by Russia and Iran are heading towards Deir al-Zour. Meanwhile, US-backed forces enter the province from the north. With the start of operations in Iraq on Tuesday, the Islamic State is also being squeezed from the east.
The convergence of these forces, which often have competing interests and loyalties, sets the stage for a complicated military campaign that brings rival forces fighting a common enemy closer together, increasing the possibility of confrontation.
Iraqi forces are separately preparing to fight for the northern city of Hawijah, a battle that has been delayed and complicated by a political dispute over who will control it once the Islamic State is expelled.
Hawijah sits in the province of Kirkuk, which is due to take part in a controversial referendum on Monday on Kurdish independence from Iraq. Kurds and Arabs both have a historic claim to the province and have fought over who should lead the fight for Hawijah.