BAGHDAD/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iraqi armed forces on Saturday dislodged Islamic State from a natural gas-rich border area with Syria, according to the military.
Iranian-backed forces fighting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army simultaneously announced the start of an offensive to reach the same border area from the opposite side.
An Iraqi military statement said Akashat, a desert region located south of the Euphrates river, was captured in an offensive which had been announced earlier in the day.
The attack on Akashat is meant to pave the way for the recapture of urban centers in the Euphrates valley, including the border post of al-Qaim, it said.
Iranian-backed Shi‘ite paramilitary forces known as Popular Mobilization and Sunni tribal fighters known as Tribal Mobilization took part in the offensive, it added.
The Iraqi air force dropped thousands of leaflets overnight on Akashat as well as on al-Qaim and the towns of Ana and Rawa, alongside the Euphrates, telling the militants to surrender or face death, the statement said.
Two different campaigns are also advancing on Islamic State positions on the Syrian side of the border there - Syrian government forces supported by Russian air strikes and Iran-backed militias, and a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
An alliance of Shi‘ite militias fighting with the Syrian army said it launched an assault to reach al-Bukamal, the Syrian border town on the Euphrates, facing al-Qaim.
Securing al-Bukamal is important for Iran’s allies as the two other main crossings into Syria, to the north and to the south, are under the control of forces allied with the U.S.
Securing a land corridor across Iraq could make it easier for Iran to ferry heavy weapons to Syria should Baghdad approve such transfers. The Shi‘ite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad has good relations with both Tehran and Washington.
The Russian- and U.S.-backed campaigns against Islamic State in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other’s way as the sides seek to avoid conflict, with the Euphrates often acting as a dividing line between them.
But a senior Assad aide this week said the Syrian government was ready to fight the U.S.-backed SDF to recapture the entire country.
The cross-border “caliphate” declared by Islamic State in 2014 in effect collapsed in July, when a U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive captured Mosul, the militants’ capital in Iraq.
The towns in the border region with Syria and Hawija, a northern province close to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, are the only urban centers still under Islamic State control in Iraq.
The group overran about a third of Iraq in 2014 in a sweeping offensive that allowed the militants to grab hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weaponry and vehicles left by the fleeing Iraqi forces.
Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Andrew Bolton