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.”
30,000 Syrians eligible to vote in Turkish elections
- Polls suggest Erdogan’s alliance could narrowly lose its parliamentary majority
- If the party passes a 10 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament, it could win dozens of seats in Parliament
ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is quoted as saying that 30,000 Syrians who acquired Turkish nationality are eligible to vote in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Hurriyet newspaper and other media said Yildirim made the comments Tuesday in the city of Izmir.
Turkey, which is hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, announced in 2016 that it would begin granting citizenship to Syrians.
In another development, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) party leader said Turkey could stage another election if the alliance between President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and the MHP could not form a majority in Parliament after Sunday’s vote.
Polls suggest Erdogan’s alliance could narrowly lose its parliamentary majority, while the presidential vote may also go to a second round run-off.
MHP chairman Devlet Bahceli who backed Erdogan in the referendum, said another set of early elections could be on the agenda if the presidency and Parliament struggle to work together after Sunday’s vote.
Speaking in an interview on private news channel NTV late on Monday, Bahceli said that the referendum granted either the president or Parliament the authority to call for snap elections when there was a “blockage” — for example if Erdogan won the presidency but his party fell short of a parliamentary majority.
“When the presidency and Parliament come to the point where they can’t work in unison, there are ways out of this under the constitutional changes and they are carried out. For example, an ... early election could be considered,” he said.
Bahceli played a pivotal role in moving Sunday’s elections forward more than a year when he called on the government to declare snap elections in April. Erdogan set the election date for the June 24 votes after a meeting with Bahceli.
Under the constitutional changes, which will go into effect following the elections, the number of lawmakers in Parliament will increase to 600 from 550. Officials from the AK Party, which has enjoyed a parliamentary majority until now, have said they aim to receive at least 300 seats in the assembly.
Throughout his election campaign, Erdogan has stressed the importance of a “strong Parliament,” saying the decision to support him for the presidency but not the AK Party was a “disturbing attempt.”
The composition of the assembly could depend on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition, which has significant backing in the country’s largely Kurdish southeast.
If the party passes a 10 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament, it could win dozens of seats in Parliament. If it fails, the seats will go to the second most popular party in the region, almost certainly guaranteeing a majority for the AKP.
Meanwhile, voting at Turkish diplomatic missions abroad for expatriate Turks ends Tuesday, with orange sealed bags carrying votes already arriving in Turkey. Voting at border gates and airports will continue until all polls close Sunday afternoon.
The country’s official Anadolu news agency said 41 percent of the more than 3 million registered expatriate voters have cast their ballots so far.