As caliphate crumbles, US builds outposts in western Iraq
As caliphate crumbles, US builds outposts in western Iraq
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.”
Torture in Palestinian jails ‘systematic’
- Human Rights Watch said the “torture” done by both parties against detainees is “a crime against humanity”
- Methods employed included beatings, electric shocks and stress positions
RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian security forces “systematically” abuse and torture prisoners in what could amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The rival authorities of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas both used threats, arbitrary arrests and violent abuse against detainees, said the New York-based group.
The report is likely to put pressure on governments that fund the PA’s forces, including the United States, which has maintained security funding despite cutting aid to the Palestinians.
Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel-Palestine director, said the actions by both sides amounted to potential war crimes that could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.
“Both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas authorities in Gaza are systematically, arbitrarily detaining critics and torturing those in custody,” he told AFP.
“Systematic torture as part of a government policy is a crime against humanity.”
He said the allegations undermined Palestinian criticism of Israeli rights abuses.
“You have Palestinian leaders going around the world speaking about Palestinian rights at the same time as they are directing a machinery of oppression to crush dissent,” he told AFP.
The PA rejected the allegations, accusing Human Rights Watch of allying with the US government. Hamas did not respond.
The Palestinian territories have been split between rival administrations since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a near civil war in 2007.
In its report, HRW said both sides particularly focused on those allegedly affiliated with the rival faction.
Methods employed by the Palestinian Authority included beatings, electric shocks and stress positions.
On one occasion PA security forces tied a cord around a detainee’s penis for eight hours, causing it to swell and turn blue, HRW said.
Sami Al-Sai, a journalist, was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of relations with Hamas.
The 39-year-old was beaten, had threats made about his family and hanged from a ceiling by handcuffs.
He eventually pleaded guilty to various charges including “creating sectarian strife” and was jailed for three months.
“Every day I expect that they will rearrest me, and torture me again, but they can’t do anything more than they did.”
In Gaza, Hamas also beat and systematically abused prisoners.
A Western diplomat said the report was alarming, without suggesting what action could be taken in response.
The United States under Donald Trump has cut around $500 million in aid to Palestinians this year, but continued to provide roughly $50 million a year for security coordination with Israel.
“It is noteworthy that at a time when the United States has cut funding for UNRWA, which provides vital health and education services to Palestinians and to hospitals in east Jerusalem, the only source of funding remaining is to security coordination (and) to security forces that are involved in really serious abuses,” Shakir said.
He called on Western states to temporarily suspend funding to the PA security forces.
Haitham Arar, head of human rights at the PA’s interior ministry, said the government “rejected everything in the Human Rights Watch report.”
“The report confuses politics and human rights and is consistent with the (US) Deal of the Century with the aim of weakening the PA,” Arar said, referring to Trump’s long-delayed peace plan that Palestinians fear will be biased toward Israel.
HRW said the report was the result of two years of research and nearly 150 interviews.