Iraq's battle against Daesh cells grinds on in the desert

1. Iraq Daesh
A picture taken during a tour organized by the Iraqi Army, shows members of Iraq's Rapid Intervention forces driving in a village in the Hawi Al-Azim area, in the eastern Diyala province on January 24, 2022, during preparations for a military operation. (Photo: AFP)
HAWI AL-AZIM , Iraq — Bullet holes riddle the concrete watchtower of a remote Iraqi army outpost north of Baghdad, a sign of the Daesh group’s night-time attack that killed 11 soldiers.اضافة اعلان

The small riverside base is ringed by sand berms, a shallow moat and coils of razor wire, and three soldiers in mismatched uniforms are busy strengthening it with cement and cinder blocks.

It has been four years since the Islamist extremist group lost its self-proclaimed "caliphate" stretching across much of Iraq and Syria after long and grueling battles.

But Daesh fighters remain active in a low-level insurgency and have recently stepped up their hit-and-run attacks against anyone in uniform, or anyone else who dares to stand up to them.

"They hide in holes dug into the ground or in abandoned houses," said a senior Iraqi army officer during a visit Monday to the dusty outpost in the eastern province of Diyala.

"This is also where they hide their explosives and weapons," he told AFP during the trip, asking not to be identified.

The unenviable task of Iraq's security forces is to hunt Daesh cells in a vast territory that stretches from Baghdad to Kirkuk, nearly 250km to the north, straddling three provinces.

At this outpost, one of a string of bases along the banks of the Adhaim river, Daesh fighters struck in the middle of a bitterly cold night, last Friday at 2:30am, killing 11 soldiers.

The ambush came at the same time that, across the border in Syria, more than 100 Daesh fighters launched their biggest attack in years, on a prison in the northeastern city of Hasakeh, attempting to free fellow fighters.

The fierce battle there still has raged on, with the death toll topping 160 on Tuesday, as US-backed Kurdish forces surrounded the prison, while Daesh fighters remained holed up inside with thousands of detainees.

Bloody cat-and-mouse game

In Iraq, troops and police have been sweeping the area along the Adhaim river since the attack last week, in the latest chapter of a bloody cat-and-mouse game with the terrorists.

"We have been in this area for four days," said Capt. Azhar al-Juburi of the Federal Police Rapid Response Force as he returned from a patrol.

"We haven't had any direct confrontation, but we have arrested terrorists."

The local soldiers were not allowed to speak with visiting press, but the senior army officer explained that the terrorists "took advantage of the bad weather and the early hour to attack".

It was "the first time that Daesh has attacked us directly", he said.

"They did not have the means until now. They were limited to planting improvised explosive devices and sniper fire."

Diyala's provincial governor Muthanna Al-Tamimi had another explanation, blaming "the negligence of the soldiers".

"The base is fortified," he said after the attack. "There is a thermal camera, night vision goggles and a concrete watchtower."

‘Daesh reorganizing troops’

Whatever the case, said Iraqi analyst Imad Allou, the attack does underscore that Daesh "is trying to reorganize its troops and activities in Iraq".

A UN report last year estimated that around 10,000 Daesh fighters remained active across Iraq and Syria.

The ongoing Daesh presence in Syria is largely in desert hideouts in the east of the country, where the Kurds maintain a semi-autonomous administration that borders Iraq.

In Iraq, Daesh is most active in the north but has also claimed bomb attacks on civilian targets elsewhere, including a blast last July on a market in Sadr city, a Shiite suburb of Baghdad, that killed dozens.

Read more Region and World