Al Qaim, Iraq – The vast Anbar desert stretches across almost a third of Iraq, 138,000 square-kilometres of no man’s land to the country’s west.
Here, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) sleeper cells use the remote area’s mountain ranges, valleys and caves to plan and launch their attacks from.
The Iraqi military and US-led coalition are hesitant to give exact numbers but estimate that a few hundred fighters clustered in groups as small as two are all that remains of the group.
In remote parts, ISIL fighters have stopped their aggressive tactics of killing and abducting locals. Instead, a few fighters will show up from time to time to seek food and supplies.
This is not an easy area for the authorities to search and monitor. The rugged terrain makes manning checkpoints and surveillance posts extremely challenging, as does the vastness of the area; the Iraq-Syria border alone stretches some 600 kilometres.
Iraqi forces say they are doing all they can to prevent these areas from becoming safe havens for ISIL.
There are plans to invest over $3m in building a border fence equipped with advanced surveillance and watchtowers. The fence should stretch from Anbar to Nineveh, covering Iraq’s entire border with Syria. So far, only 20km of the long border with Syria has been fenced.
The US-led coalition is supporting these efforts, pushing to take advantage of ISIL’s shift from an organised force to an unpredictable and weakened revolt.
US Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force, told Al Jazeera: “There are pockets of ISIS we knew and we saw where some of them escaped to. The ironic thing is that they planned for their failure four years ago; Anbar was their final destination if this caliphate did not work out, which it didn’t.”
But some Iraqis in remote parts are not feeling as confident, saying that while security forces may control the day, the night still belongs to ISIL.
Iraq’s security forces say that’s changing. Mohammed al-Askari, a senior adviser in Iraq’s defence ministry, told Al Jazeera: “To some extent, I would agree that sometimes ISIL has the night and security forces have the day. But such things are in the past; it used to happen during ISIL reign when it controlled Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah and al-Qaim.”
The spokesperson for the Iraqi Combined Operations Command, Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, is adamant that after the Iraqi army’s victory, ISIL’s presence on the ground has been routed.
“Iraqi forces are continuing military operations to hunt down ISIL militants south of Kirkuk, the Hawijah mountain ranges, Hamrin basin, several areas in Diyalah and the desert areas in Salahuddin and Anbar.
“Near the Iraq-Syria border, these divisions are conducting search ops, raids and arrests backed by intelligence.”
People in remote parts of Salahuddin, Anbar and Nineveh – predominantly Sunni areas – have told Al Jazeera that they are afraid to identify themselves because they fear reprisals, both from returning ISIL fighters and from security forces for speaking out about their dissatisfaction.
But Iraqi forces say that too is changing as their efforts to build confidence and gain the trust of the people take root, adding that Iraqis are no longer demanding that security forces leave their neighbourhoods as they used to in the past.
Many of these predominantly Sunni areas are under the control of Iran-backed Shia militias – also known as the Hashd or popular mobilisation units – which were the spearhead in defeating ISIL but have also been accused of human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings. Although they have been brought under the control of the prime minister’s office, its widely believed that they draw their strength and orders from across the border.
Major General Tahseen al-Khafaji, spokesperson for Iraq’s defence ministry, says: “It is very important for people in these remote areas to become better educated to gain awareness and a different culture. Those same people have witnessed ISIL’s havoc and destruction – they lived under ISIL rule in the past three years and witnessed atrocities.
“That is why it is key to have the security apparatuses strengthen their relationship with the people who will, in turn, compare the dark times under ISIL and the current situation that has better security and stability.
“We admit that the security sometimes has flaws … but we are at the same time monitoring as the Ministry of Defence and as an intelligence and military establishment to catch anyone who is trying to do bad things and degrade the relationship between us and the people. Spreading awareness is key, but the most important thing is building trust.”
The US-led coalition against ISIL is one of the largest in terms of number of countries united to fight a single enemy. While many Iraqis haven’t forgotten the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, there are many others who are thankful for the US’s help in the fight against ISIL.
These days the coalition’s mission in Iraq is to advise, assist and train. But because of the nature and size of the terrain in Anbar, al-Khafaji says air cover is crucial.
“All we need from the coalition is training, arming and enhancing our air force – we have advanced air force capacity and fighter jets but we need more air force efforts and training. We need at least 4-5 years to establish a strong and independent air force unit. That is why we crucially need air force support.”
Boots on the ground, however, remain a touchy subject: “We do not need foreign ground troops, we have all the troops we need in order to track down the remnants of ISIL, all we need is proper training. We have a plan that was initiated in 2017 when the coalition and NATO took on the responsibility to train our forces,” al-Khafaji says.
“2018 is a year of building and training. In 2019, our own trainers [trained by] by the coalition will begin supervising our troops. By 2020, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence will take care of training our forces and the role of the coalition will become supervisory. By 2021, Iraq’s military establishment will be divided into divisions including north, central and south. All this will be done in cooperation with the coalition,” he added.
ISIL has been carrying out up to five attacks every month and continues to kill and maim Iraqi soldiers and militia fighters.
The threat of ISIL regrouping in the desert and making a comeback is still a reality because of the difficulty in tracing and identifying their desert hideouts.
Iraqi forces dismiss the criticism that they and their militia counterparts are untrained to hold the peace, that they lack local knowledge or that the trust gap with local communities is a hindrance against ISIL.
Al-Askari says: “ISIL, since its rise and until its eventual fall, in Iraq fully depends on misinformation, brainwashing and falsifying ideologies. ISIL is not giving up easily, it is a relentless enemy and we know that.
“That is why ISIL is in the phase of trying to rebuild its capacity, to try to resurface with a new method and new leaders. We have accurate info that ISIL – despite its efforts to resurface – is still collapsing. We are tracking down how money is reaching ISIL through money laundering.”
In the past few days, the mostly Kurdish SDF forces have stepped up their offensive against ISIL and, as a result, more Iraqi soldiers and tanks have been sent to Al Qaim.
The newly sworn-in government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi now faces the daunting task of stopping cross-border infiltration from Syria, as well as to rebuild trust with local communities who are as uncertain about the future as US-backed troops who seemingly find themselves providing cover to Iran-backed Shia fighters.