Iraqi forces set for anti-ISIL drive up Euphrates Valley
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”.
Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitaries parade in the holy shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq yesterday
Iraqi Kurds in Erbil urge people to vote in the Kurdistan region’s independence referendum on September 25