Iraqi troops have reinforced their positions along the porous frontier with neighboring war-torn Syria, fearing a spillover from clashes there between Islamic State and U.S.-backed forces.
For weeks, ISIS has fought back an assault by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on a key jihadist-held pocket in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the border with Iraq.
It managed to recapture some territory from the SDF around Hajin, prompting Baghdad to dispatch reinforcements to its own border, including paramilitary units from the Hashd al-Shaabi and the army.
“All measures have been taken: we have control towers, observation posts, dirt berms and trenches,” Lieutenant Colonel Abbas Mohammad, the head of one border unit, said Thursday, November 2.
“The SDF’s retreat will not be a threat to Iraq,” he added.
Between 6,000 to 10,000 Iraqi Army and up to 20,000 Hashd al-Shabi fighters were deployed, NBC News reported.
Soldiers could be seen posted along a sand berm topped by barbed wire and decorated with Iraqi flags, according to an AFP videojournalist at the scene.
Military vehicles patrolled between barracks, and soldiers stationed at observation posts pointed their machine guns towards the Syrian border.
Helicopters and more armoured cars arrived throughout the day.
According to Iraqi General Qassem al-Mohammadi, who heads operations in Iraq’s western Anbar province, ISIS fighters were just “five or six kilometres away, inside Syria.”
Anbar, a massive desert governorate which extends from the edge of Baghdad west towards the Syrian border, served as a jihadist bastion before Iraqi forces retook it in late 2017.
Across the border in Syria, two separate offensives have aimed at ousting ISIS from the frontier with Iraq.
One has been carried out by Russian-backed Syrian troops, who have cleared ISIS from territory west of the Euphrates river.
That includes the Bukamal border post with Iraq, which was captured last year. Authorities in both Baghdad and Damascus said in mid-October that they hope to revitalize cross-border trade through it as soon as possible.
The SDF is still fighting ISIS east of the Euphrates around Hajin, where the U.S.-led coalition estimates around 2,000 jihadists are based, but the force said on Thursday that it it temporarily halted its fight against Islamic State due to a series of Turkish military attacks along the Syria-Turkey border east of the Euphrates river.
With reporting from AFP