The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) – also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi – on Sunday seized the center of al-Baaj, one of the last bastions of the Islamic State in northwestern Iraq close to the Syrian border, the Iraqi and reported. Iraqi air force assisted the P.M.F. in the operation, according to Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). Recently, P.M.F. Spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi had that the paramilitary forces would launch major offensives against the Islamic State to capture Hawijah, a district 20 miles west of Iraq’s Kirkuk Province, Shirqat, about 185 miles north of the capital city of Baghdad, and the Hamrin Mountains in northern Salahuddin Province.
Comment: The seizure of the strategic town of al-Baaj is a significant victory for the Iraqi government’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly used the al-Baaj region as one of his hideouts in the past three years.
The capture of the town is also another significant victory for Iranian-supported P.M.F. units that want to expand their control of regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The P.M.F. spokesman recently said that P.M.F. forces were ready to enter Syria to fight the Islamic fighters there in cooperation with the Syrian government. Iran hopes that its proxy groups in Syria and Iraq can link up the land route between Damascus and Baghdad. But while the P.M.F groups have now reached the Syrian border, Iranian-backed militias in Syria have a long way to go to reach the Iraqi border.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the P.M.F.’s operational commander who has close relations with Iran and is designated as a terrorist by the United States, said last week that P.M.F. forces would hand over the border region to the Syrian and Iraqi border guards once retaken from the Islamic State – but many Sunni Iraqi and regional leaders have doubts.
Controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border is a strategic prize for Tehran. It will allow the I.R.G.C. to deploy forces and weapons into Syria. Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of I.R.G.C. Quds Force, was with P.M.F. forces at a border site in northwest Iraq soon after P.M.F. units reached the area.