After three years of combat, Iraq’s prime minister declared victory Saturday over Islamic State, saying government forces have driven the militants from their last footholds in the country.
Addressing a conference in Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider Abadi said Iraqi troops were now in full control of the desert regions along the border with Syria.
“Our enemy wanted to destroy our civilization, but we have won through our unity and our determination,” Abadi said.
The announcement came two days after the Russian military said it had accomplished its mission of helping President Bashar Assad defeat Islamic State in neighboring Syria, although fighting continues in pockets near the Iraqi border.
The U.S.-led coalition, which provided air support and other military aid to Abadi’s government, congratulated the Iraqis on their “significant victory.”
But the militants have recovered from previous setbacks, and commanders warn that they remain capable of inflicting deadly attacks, in Iraq and around the world. Security experts believe Islamic State will likely revert to a more conventional guerilla-style insurgency.
The victory also comes at enormous cost. The coalition acknowledges that its forces have killed at least 800 civilians in Iraq and Syria since it launched its campaign against Islamic State in 2014. Monitoring groups put the toll much higher, at least 5,961, according to the London-based group Airwars.
The fighting ravaged major cities, and more than 3 million Iraqis remain displaced.
Islamic State stunned the world when its fighters stormed across the border from Syria and took control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in 2014.
At the height of its power, the group’s’ self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state, spanned about a third of both countries. But the militants have been losing territory quickly this year in the face of multiple assaults.
Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. air power, recaptured Mosul in July after a nine-month campaign. Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, fell to a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in September.
Since then, fighting has been concentrated in cities and towns along the Euphrates River and desert areas straddling the porous Syria-Iraq border.
The whereabouts of the militants’ leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, remain unknown. In September, Islamic State released a purported audio recording of Baghdadi in which he urged followers around the world to intensify attacks.
“Now the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedeen,” he said. “Do not let the crusaders and apostates enjoy a good life or a pleasant living in the middle of their countries, while your brothers are experiencing bombardment, killing and destruction.”
© 2017 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.