ISIS surrenders Iraqi hideout of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
ISIS has surrendered the key town of Baaj in north-west Iraq, a known hideout of the terrorist group’s leader which had been under Islamist militants’ control throughout 14 years of war and insurgency, the Guardian reported on Monday.
The few remaining ISIS fighters fled the town on Saturday night, allowing Shia militia forces to enter unopposed.
A statement from Al Hashd Shiite Militias , an umbrella organisation for pro-government paramilitaries that is dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias (IMIS), announced the “total liberation” of the Baaj district and declared: “The Iraqi flag has been hoisted above its buildings.”
Throughout Sunday, the Front’s fighters raised Iraqi flags and banners where ISIS flags had flown since mid-2014, securing a victory that resonates far beyond the formerly untamed corner of north-west Iraq.
The withdrawal leaves just that pocket of Mosul and the town of Bukamal as the only urban centres in Iraq, or on the Syrian border, with a significant ISIS presence. The fight to reclaim lands seized by ISIS is now expected to shift focus to Syria, where the next, and potentially final, leg of the campaign to eradicate the group’s presence is intensifying.
Baaj has become increasingly important to Iranian efforts to influence what emerges from the war against ISIS. A statement claiming the capture of the town came from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a prominent Shia paramilitary leader with extensive ties to Iran.
Last month he, together with the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, directed Shia paramilitary forces to capture Baaj as a crucial part of a land corridor that Iran has been trying to establish across Iraq and Syria.
Bukamal is expected to be a new focus of both Iranian and US efforts. At the same time, US-backed Kurdish troops are now within sight of Raqqa on three sides of the city. Kurdish groups say the battle to retake the city is likely to start sometime this month.