Iraqi forces, supported by members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units), advance in Iraq's western desert as they seek to flush out the last pockets of Islamic State group fighters in the countryIraqi forces, supported by members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units), advance in Iraq's western desert on November 23, 2017 as they seek to flush out the last pockets of Islamic State group fighters in the country (AFP Photo/STRINGER)
Baghdad (AFP) - Iraqi forces launched a sweep through the western desert to flush out remaining Islamic State group fighters on Thursday, an operation the prime minister has said will spell the jihadists' "final defeat" in the country.
The arid, sparsely populated wastelands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are the last refuge of the jihadists in Iraq after troops and paramilitaries ousted them from all urban areas.
"The Iraqi army, the federal police and the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units) this morning began clearing the Al-Jazeera region straddling Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar provinces," the head of Joint Operations Command, General 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 armour 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 -- a black standard bearing the name of Imam Hussein, one of the faith's most revered figures.
Long lines of pick-up trucks waited to follow.
By the afternoon the Hashed said its forces had already taken control of 56 villages and hamlets to reach the area around Lake Tharthar, capturing three strategic bridges and destroying eight car bombs and pick-up trucks along the way.
The Al-Jazeera region is where IS fighters escaped to 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.
- 'Final defeat' -
The region's dry valleys, oases and steppes make up around four percent of national territory, Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on IS, told AFP last week.
It has been known as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency and smuggling since the US-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, long before the arrival of IS 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 IS but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that he would not follow suit until the desert had been cleared of remaining jihadists.
"After the operation has ended, we will announce the final defeat of Daesh in Iraq," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
It is a massive turnaround for the jihadist group that in 2014 ruled over seven 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, IS is under massive pressure too.
In the border region, pro-government forces and US-backed Kurdish-led fighters are conducting separate operations to clear IS fighters from the countryside north of the Euphrates valley after ousting them from all Syrian towns.
Elsewhere, IS retains a presence in the Yarmuk refugee camp and the Hajar Aswad district just south of the capital Damascus, where the group is battling other jihadists and pro-government forces.
In the central province of Homs, it is being squeezed by troops loyal to President Bashar al-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.