The arid, sparsely populated wastelands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are the last refuge of the militants in Iraq after troops and paramilitaries ousted them from both valleys and all urban areas.
“The Iraqi Army, the federal police and the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization paramilitary units) this morning began clearing the Al-Jazeera region straddling Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar provinces,” the head of Joint Operations Command, Gen. Abdelamir Yarallah, said in a statement.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi released live footage from Siniyah in Saleheddin province of bulldozers clearing an earthen barrier to allow heavy armor to advance into the desert.
The tanks bore both the Iraq national flag and that of the paramilitary force, which is made up largely of Shiite militias.
Long lines of pick-up trucks waited to follow.
The Hashed said its forces had already taken control of a dozen villages, destroying a car bomb and defusing dozens of booby-traps planted by the militants.
The Al-Jazeera region is where Daesh fighters took refuge when Iraqi forces recaptured the last towns they still held in a successful drive up the Euphrates Valley to the Syrian border earlier this month.
That offensive culminated in the lightning recapture of the town of Rawa last Friday and saw Iraqi forces meet up with Syrian forces at the border.
“This operation is aimed at clearing the desert of the pockets where the jihadists took refuge when the towns that they had held were recently liberated,” a senior officer in Anbar province told AFP.
The region’s dry valleys, oases and steppes make up around 4 percent of national territory, Hisham Al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on Daesh, told AFP last week.
It has been known as a hotbed of militant insurgency and smuggling since the US-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, long before the arrival of Daesh in 2014.
“There are some desert areas, which Iraqi government forces have not entered since 2003 and the operation is aimed at securing these areas 100 percent,” security analyst Said Al-Jayyashi told AFP.
“Once the clearance operations have been completed right up to the Iraq-Syria border, forces will redeploy and fortify the frontier,” he said.
Iraq’s close ally Iran has already declared victory over Daesh but Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said on Tuesday that he would not follow suit until the desert had been cleared of remaining militants.
“After the operation has ended, we will announce the final defeat of Daesh in Iraq,” he said.
It is a massive turnaround for an organization that in 2014 ruled over 7 million people in a territory as large as Italy encompassing large parts of Syria and nearly a third of Iraq.
On the Syrian side of the border, Daesh is under massive pressure too.
In the border region, pro-government forces and US-backed Kurdish-led forces are conducting similar operations to clear Daesh fighters from the countryside north of the Euphrates valley after ousting them from all Syrian towns.
Elsewhere, Daesh retains a presence in the Yarmuk refugee camp and the Hajjar Aswad district just south of the capital Damascus, where the group is battling other militants and pro-government forces.
In the central province of Homs, it is being squeezed by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and their Russian backers as it struggles to maintain a grip on a few small areas.
To the south, in Daraa province on the border with Jordan, an affiliated group called Jaish Khaled bin Walid is mainly battling other rebel groups.