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Iraq says it has defeated Isis, three years after the jihadi group swept through the country humiliating the army and seizing some of its largest cities.
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi told a conference in Baghdad that security forces had recaptured the last areas under Isis control along the border with Syria, state television reported on Saturday.
“Our heroic armed forces have now secured the entire length of the Iraq-Syria border. We defeated Daesh [Isis] through our unity and sacrifice for the nation. Long live Iraq and its people,” Mr Abadi said on social media.
Defeating Isis has been the main priority for Mr Abadi, who faces elections next year. He took office in 2014 after Baghdad was humiliated by an Isis blitz that saw the jihadi group capture cities including Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi as the Iraqi army melted away.
Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces retook Ramadi and Falluja in 2015 and 2016 respectively, and declared victory in Mosul in July after several months of battle.
Isis has lost swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria over the past year in the face of multiple offensives backed by international forces.
But militants remain a threat across the region, with experts warning that they can still operate in cells and launch deadly attacks.
General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, said on Saturday that Russian and Iranian claims that Isis had been defeated in Syria defied logic, warning that the jihadi group could stage a resurgence if pressure on it was not maintained.
He described Isis as “savvy” and “adaptable”. He said there were still hundreds of Isis militants fighting in Syria, adding that “it could be much more than that”.
“The one thing we have learnt about an organisation like Isis over time is that they are incredibly adaptable. For anyone to right now say that they are defeated [in Syria] I think defies logic,” Gen Votel said at conference in Bahrain. “We’ve seen this is Afghanistan, we’ve seen it in Iraq, in Yemen, where when you take the pressure off these organisations they will resurge.”
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Raqqa, the Syrian city that was the de facto capital of Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate in October. Weeks later, Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, seized control of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, Isis’s last big stronghold.
Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units fighting in Raqqa, Syria, in July © Reuters
The successes against the militants caused Russian president Vladimir Putin to declare this week that Isis had suffered “complete defeat” in eastern Syria. Iran, which also backs Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s six-year civil war, made similar announcements in November.
But Gen Votel said taking away “the terrain from Isis doesn’t mean that Isis has gone, they will operate in smaller cells”.
The US commander denied reports that foreign Isis fighters had been allowed to escape during the battle for Raqqa. But he acknowledged that local sheikhs had negotiated a deal under which “some local fighters” and their families were allowed to leave the city.
“What did occur is local sheikhs reached out to the local forces and were very concerned about the level of damage and the potential for increased civilian casualties in the fighting,” he said. “This was a local solution to a local problem, it did not involve foreign fighters.”
He said the militants were screened by the SDF, “biometrically scrolled” and handed over to local leaders who “took custody of the local fighters and their families”.
Gen Votel said, “To our knowledge there were no foreign fighters who left our area.”
Based on the experiences of the battles for Raqqa and Mosul, Isis’s foreign fighters “have generally fought to the death”.
“Those that were able to get out of places like Raqqa or Mosul have moved to other areas within Iraq, Syria where they are either laying low or are continuing to fight,” he said.
“We have not seen incidences of foreign fighters migrating, certainly in any kind of numbers or size to other areas.”