Iraqi forces set for anti-ISIL drive up Euphrates Val­ley

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Iraqi forces yes­ter­day cap­tured an ISIL 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.

“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 Gen Ab­de­lamir Yar­al­lah, head of the joint op­er­a­tions com­mand for the cam­paign against ISIL.

The Hashed Al Shaabi is a para­mil­i­tary force com­prised mainly of Iran-trained Shi­ite mili­tias but has 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.

An al­liance of Shi­ite mili­tias fight­ing with the Syr­ian army said it launched an as­sault yes­ter­day 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 are un­der the con­trol of US-al­lied forces. 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 govern­ment in Bagh­dad has good re­la­tions with Tehran and Wash­ing­ton.

The Rus­sian and US-backed cam­paigns against ISIL in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other’s way.

The United States has urged Iraq’s au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion to call off a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence, af­ter politi­cians ap­proved a poll to be held on Septem­ber 25.

Wash­ing­ton has long sup­ported Kur­dish au­ton­omy and re­lies on Kur­dish forces in the war against ISIL.

But it is thought the ref­er­en­dum, while not legally bind­ing, could hurt Iraqi prime min­is­ter Haider Al Abadi’s re-elec­tion chances, com­pli­cate ties with Turkey, which is fight­ing a war against Kur­dish mil­i­tants, and dis­rupt the bat­tle against ISIL.

“The US has re­peat­edly em­pha­sised to the lead­ers of the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Govern­ment that the ref­er­en­dum is dis­tract­ing from ef­forts to de­feat ISIL and sta­bilise the lib­er­ated areas,” the White House said on Friday af­ter the vote.

“Hold­ing the ref­er­en­dum in dis­puted areas is par­tic­u­larly provoca­tive and desta­bil­is­ing.”

Those areas are con­trolled by Kur­dish forces but claimed by Bagh­dad, in­clud­ing the oil-rich prov­ince of Kirkuk.

Bagh­dad recog­nises Kur­dish au­ton­omy in some areas but the bor­ders of the Kurds’ self-ruled re­gion and the rest of the coun­try is dis­puted.

The in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum was set in mo­tion by the re­gional govern­ment’s pres­i­dent, Ma­soud Barzani, a Wash­ing­ton ally who has kept open the op­tion of de­lay­ing it.

But on Friday, Mr Barzani dis­missed al­ter­na­tives of­fered by the US to avert the ref­er­en­dum.

“To date, we have not re­ceived an al­ter­na­tive that can re­place the ref­er­en­dum. The al­ter­na­tive that we wanted was not of­fered,” he said.

Mr Barzani met the US en­voy to the anti-ISIL cam­paign, Brett McGurk, in Erbil on Thurs­day.

Mr McGurk tried to per­suade him to call off the ref­er­en­dum in ex­change for a new diplo­matic ini­tia­tive to reach a deal be­tween the Kurds and Bagh­dad.

Bagh­dad has re­peat­edly op­posed the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum as un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Mr Barzani says the ref­er­en­dum’s “le­git­i­macy comes from the peo­ple of Kur­dis­tan, not from the out­side”.

AFP

Hashed Al Shaabi paramil­i­taries pa­rade in the holy shrine city of Na­jaf in cen­tral Iraq yes­ter­day

AFP

Iraqi Kurds in Erbil urge peo­ple to vote in the Kur­dis­tan re­gion’s in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum on Septem­ber 25

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