As caliphate crumbles, US builds outposts in western Iraq

US Marines prepare to build a military site in western Anbar, Iraq. (AP)
Updated 11 November 2017
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As caliphate crumbles, US builds outposts in western Iraq

Al-Qaim: The US-led coalition’s newest outpost in the fight against Daesh is in a dusty corner of western Iraq near the border with Syria. Here, several hundred American Marines operate close to the battlefront, a key factor in the recent series of swift victories against the extremists.
The Americans directed Iraqi troops in their victory last week recapturing the nearby border town of Al-Qaim, the militants’ last urban holding. Now the Marines will lead the equally difficult task of clearing the extremists from their last redoubt: A large stretch of empty desert north of the Euphrates River adjoining the border with Syria.
They also face the possibility of friction with Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that are increasing their own presence in the border region.
Under a plastic tent, the Marines run an austere joint command center about 20 km from the border. A dozen monitors relay surveillance footage and troop positions in the town of Al-Qaim nearby. Using racks of radio and satellite equipment, the coalition forces and Iraqi officers at the base pass information between forces on the ground and Al-Asad Air Base, the coalition’s main base in Anbar province some 130 km to the east.
Such outposts have become more common the past year, bringing the Americans out of main bases and closer to the action. US commanders say the tactic has paid off in the swift rollback of Daesh.
The capture of Al-Qaim completed the sweep driving Daesh from major towns along the Euphrates Valley in Iraq. Along the river on the Syrian side, Syrian regime forces took the city of Deir Ezzor last week.
All that remains from the so-called “caliphate” that once stretched from northwest Syria to the edges of Baghdad are a small stretch of villages on the Euphrates in Syria and the enclave of desert straddling the border into both Syria and Iraq.
US Marines Col. Seth W. B. Folsom, commander of Task Force Lion, oversaw the Al-Qaim fight and said he expects clearing and holding the retaken territory in Anbar to be more difficult than the assault itself.
“It’s much more challenging, no doubt in my mind it’s more challenging,” he said. Motivating troops to attack to regain their country is easy, he said. “What’s less easy to motivate men to do, is to stand duty at checkpoints.”
Much of Anbar and Iraq’s border with Syria has been beyond central control for decades. The deserts there have served as havens for smugglers for generations.
Iraqi forces are stretched thin. Many are deployed in support of local police in liberated towns and cities and along major roadways. Others have been diverted to the borders of the Kurdish region amid the military standoff between Baghdad and Kurdish forces.
Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have also built up their presence along Iraq’s border with Syria.
They make no attempt to hide that they are working to physically extend the influence of US rival Iran. Jaafar Al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, a group under the PMF, boasted during the Al-Qaim fighting that the forces are securing a route from “Iran to Beirut.”
“We have foiled the American project in Iraq and on the Syrian borders, and we have succeeded in securing the road that links Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” he told The Associated Press.
Coalition forces do not directly coordinate with the PMU, but rely on the Iraqi military to relay their movements to avoid striking the fighters.
US Marines Maj. Greg Duesterhaus said the PMU presence complicates things but is not a great concern. “They are part of the forces that are out there on the battlefield,” he said.
The growing numbers of coalition troops are stretching the capacity of Anbar’s bases. Notices warning of water shortages hang in bathrooms and showers at Al-Asad. At Al-Qaim, Marines ration water.
“Anbar is the far reaches of Iraq,” said Col. Folsom. “The challenge that we’ve got here that they have not had as much up in the north is really just the tyranny of distance.”
Daily convoys leave from Al-Asad to the Al-Qaim outpost carrying water, food, ammunition and building supplies. They travel along desert roads for a tedious seven-hour journey. Storms whip up powder-fine sand, reducing visibility and halting traffic for hours. Lack of Iraqi military escorts sometimes leaves convoys stuck for hours.
Without electricity, cell phone service or the Internet, Marines at the Al-Qaim outpost pass the evening hours smoking cigarettes and talking.
Sitting between an armored vehicle and the rubble of a partially collapsed building, a group of Marines and soldiers joked about camp conditions and the monotony of their field rations. They also reflected on their mission in Iraq with a mix of sobriety and cynical humor.
They may feel a sense of accomplishment in the gains against Daesh — “but it’s not a sense of finality,” one Marine staff sergeant said. He served in Anbar in 2007, unlike most of his comrades, who are on their first deployment to Iraq. He never thought he’d be back, but now believes there will be a US presence in Iraq for generations to come.
“When my son joins the Marines, he’ll probably be deployed to Iraq,” he said with a laugh. He spoke on condition that he only be identified by his rank in line with regulations.
Col. Folsom said he hoped within the next year Iraqi forces would be able to hold the western edge of Anbar on their own and coalition forces can fall back to Al-Asad air base.
“We have to find some sort of sustainable presence,” he said. “What that will look like, I don’t know. There may still be some commuting to work in one way or another.”


Tripoli hit by air strikes, explosions as Libyan conflict surges

Updated 55 min 46 sec ago
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Tripoli hit by air strikes, explosions as Libyan conflict surges

  • It was not clear whether an aircraft or unmanned drone was behind the strike
  • Western powers have been divided over a push by Khalifa Haftar’s forces to seize Tripol

TRIPOLI: Several air strikes and explosions shook the Libyan capital Tripoli overnight, residents said, in an escalation of a two-week offensive by eastern forces on the city held by the internationally recognized government.
A Reuters reporter and several residents said they saw an aircraft circling for more than 10 minutes over the capital late on Saturday, and that it made a humming sound before opening fire on several areas.
An aircraft was heard again after midnight, circling for more than ten minutes before a heavy explosion shook the ground.
It was not clear whether an aircraft or unmanned drone was behind the strike, which triggered heavy anti-aircraft fire. Residents had reported drone strikes in recent days, but there has been no confirmation and explosions heard in the city center this time were louder than in previous days.
Residents counted several missile strikes, one of which apparently hit a military camp of forces loyal to Tripoli in the Sabaa district in the south of the capital, scene of the heaviest fighting between the rival forces.
Authorities closed Tripoli’s only functioning airport, cutting air links to a city of an estimated 2.5 million residents. The airport in Misrata, a city 200 km to the east, remained open.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) force loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar started an offensive two weeks ago but has been unable to breach the government’s southern defenses.
If a drone strike was confirmed this would point to more sophisticated warfare. The LNA has so far mainly used aging Soviet-made jets from the air force of Muammar Qaddafi, toppled in 2011, lacking precision firepower and helicopters, according to residents and military sources.
The violence spiked after the White House said on Friday that US President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Haftar earlier in the week.
The disclosure of the call and a US statement that it “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” has boosted the commander’s supporters and enraged his opponents.
Western powers have been divided over a push by Haftar’s forces to seize Tripoli, undermining calls by the United Nations for a cease-fire.
Both sides claimed progress in southern Tripoli on Saturday, but no more details were immediately available.
A Reuters TV cameraman visiting the southern Khalat Furgan suburb heard heavy shelling but saw no apparent change in the frontline.
On Friday, two children were killed in shelling in southern Tripoli, residents said. The fighting has killed 227 people and wounded 1,128, the World Health organization said before the air strikes.
On Thursday, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya at this time.
Russia objects to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence when his LNA advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli earlier this month, diplomats said.
The United States did not give a reason for its decision not to support the draft resolution, which would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya.