Daesh kills 20 US-backed fighters in Syria

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters celebrate victory in Raqqa last year. (Reuters)
Updated 14 September 2018
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Daesh kills 20 US-backed fighters in Syria

  • The fighters were advancing during a sandstorm when they were surrounded
  • The US-backed SDF had been closing in on a Daesh pocket for months

BEIRUT: At least 20 fighters from a US-backed force fighting the Daesh group were killed Friday in an ambush in eastern Syria, a war monitor said.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces is waging an offensive around the town of Hajjin in the province of Deir Ezzor, Daesh’s last stronghold in the country’s east.
“The fighters were advancing during a sandstorm, they were surrounded, Daesh members used explosives and opened fire,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The US-backed SDF had been closing in on the Daesh pocket for months before formally launching its offensive on Monday.
Since then, 53 militants and 37 SDF fighters have been killed in fierce clashes, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The Daesh group once held nearly all of Deir Ezzor, but separate offensives last year by the SDF and Russian-backed regime forces left the extremists clinging to a small area of territory near the Iraqi border.
The SDF estimates Daesh has some 3,000 fighters in its besieged holdout, many of them foreigners.
A senior US diplomat visited Kurdish-held territory in Syria last month and pledged Washington’s lasting support.
“We are prepared to stay here, as the president (Donald Trump) has made clear, to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh,” said Ambassador William Roebuck.
The Daesh group once held swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq but has since seen its self-declared “caliphate” collapse.
The extremists now control less than three percent of Syria and are mostly present in the vast Badiya desert, which lies between Damascus and the Iraqi border.
On Monday Daesh fighters killed 12 Syrian regime fighters in an ambush in the southern province of Sweida. Eight extremists were also killed, the Observatory said.


In Iraq, political wrangling spawns debate over US troops

An American military trainer observes Iraqi soldier during an exercise on approaching and clearing buildings at the Taji base complex, which hosts Iraqi and US troops and is located north of the capital Baghdad, on January 7, 2015. (AFP)
Updated 54 min 15 sec ago
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In Iraq, political wrangling spawns debate over US troops

  • American troop numbers in Iraq peaked at some 170,000 during the battle against Al-Qaeda and other insurgents that followed the US-led invasion of 2003

BAGHDAD: From the halls of parliament to the lightning-fast rumor mills of social media, pro-Iran factions are demanding US troops withdraw from Iraq in a challenge to the country’s fragile government.
The political wrangling is another indication of Iraq’s precarious position as it tries to balance ties between two key allies — the United States and the Islamic republic of Iran.
Calls for a US pullout have intensified since President Donald Trump’s shock decision last month to pull troops from neighboring Syria, while keeping American forces in Iraq.
In recent weeks, pro-Iran parties have organized protests to demand an accelerated US troop withdrawal while affiliated media outlets published footage of alleged US reinforcements in Iraq’s restive west and north.
The debate is heating up in parliament as well.
Last week a lawmaker demanded Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi provide a written explanation for the ongoing US military presence in Iraq and a timeframe for their stay.
MPs are also drafting a law that would set a deadline for a US withdrawal, according to Mahmud Al-Rubaie of the Sadiqun bloc, one of the political groups working on the text.
“We categorically reject the presence of foreign troops in Iraq,” Rubaie told AFP.
But rather than a genuine, popularly-driven desire for a US withdrawal, the draft is part of the wider race for influence between Washington and Tehran, analysts said.
“This talk is part of the power struggle between the US and Iran,” said Iraqi security expert Hashem Al-Hashemi.
Tensions between the two countries have intensified since the US pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear accord negotiated with Iran in May last year, and observers fear they could destabilize Iraq.

American troop numbers in Iraq peaked at some 170,000 during the battle against Al-Qaeda and other insurgents that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama ordered a withdrawal that was completed in 2011, but troops were redeployed in 2014 under a US-led coalition battling the Daesh group.
In December 2017, Iraq announced it had defeated Daesh.
Since then the number of foreign coalition troops has dropped from nearly 11,000 in January 2018 to 8,000 by December last year, according to the prime minister.
Coalition spokesman Sean Ryan says there are 5,200 US soldiers now stationed alongside Iraqi forces in various bases across the country.
Their presence angers the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force that is dominated by pro-Iran factions which played a key role alongside government forces in the fight against Daesh.
“The US has banned the Hashed from coming near the military bases where its troops are stationed,” said Hashemi.
“So the Hashed is now adopting a reciprocal policy,” he said, by pushing for a US withdrawal.

Trump’s surprise Christmas visit to troops stationed in western Iraq has added fuel to the fire.
Pro-Iran parties seized on the fact that he did not meet with Iraqi officials to slam the visit as insulting and a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
Renad Mansour, a researcher at the London-based Chatham House, told AFP the revived debate over US troops was likely a swipe at Abdel Mahdi by hard-line pro-Iran factions.
“If Adel Abdel Mahdi fails in removing the US troops, his opponents will of course use it to make him seem weak, just as they used the fact that Trump didn’t meet with him when he came,” he said.
Iraqis, meanwhile, are more concerned with staggering unemployment, power cuts, and a political crisis that has left key ministries unmanned for months.
Very few showed up Friday at protests in Baghdad demanding an American pull-out, while hundreds turned out for demonstrations in the south of the country to protest a lack of public services.
“If Abdel Mahdi is unable to deliver services or jobs or water, or pick a defense or interior minister, then he has way bigger problems,” said Mansour.
“If he succeeds in delivering in services, no one will care about US forces.”