BEIRUT -- Clashes have broken out on the Syria-Iraq border between Islamic State group militants and Iraqi paramilitary fighters as the extremist group defends its last stronghold in the region, a Syria monitoring group and an Iraqi official said Saturday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes started late Friday and continued into Saturday. The Observatory said Islamic State militants in Syria repelled an attack by Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, the paramilitary group of mostly Shiite fighters within the Iraqi security forces. The Observatory said the attack took place near the border town of Boukamal but that the Popular Mobilization Forces fighters crossed back into Iraq.
Jaafar al-Husseini, spokesman for Iraq's Kataeb Hezbollah, a group within the Popular Mobilization Forces, said his forces clashed with the Islamic State just meters from the border with Syria. He said his forces also fired rockets inside Syria from Qaim, the Iraqi border town reclaimed from the Islamic State on Friday.
But al-Husseini said his fighters didn't cross into Syria. He said forces from Iraqi militias were already fighting in Syria alongside the Syrian government and other Iran-supported militias to reclaim the last stronghold of the group and secure the road between Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon.
On Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad's military announced the capture of the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory in retaking the town of Qaim on the border, the militants' last significant urban area in Iraq. The Syrian forces are expected to now focus on Boukamal.
Boukamal is the last urban center for the militants in both Iraq and Syria, where Syrian troops --backed by Russia and Iranian-supported militias -- and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are vying for control of the strategic border town, key to control of the borders between the two countries.
Washington is wary of increasing Iran influence in the area and has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces in their bid to uproot the Islamic State from the borders with Iraq. The proximity of forces in the area has raised concerns about potential clashes between them as they approach Boukamal from opposite sides of the Euphrates River, and now from across the border with Iraq.
Al-Husseini said the Popular Mobilization Forces will participate in the liberation of Boukamal and will head north to protect the borders and secure the road from Iran to Lebanon.
Spokesman for the U.S. coalition Col. Ryan Dillon said that despite multiple forces operating in the area, including the Syrian troops, Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the coalition continues to de-conflict with the Russians to avoid confrontation.
Dillon said there are between 2,500 and 3,500 remaining Islamic State fighters concentrated around Boukamal.
With the new losses, the Islamic State group has been driven from more than 96 percent of the large parts of Iraq and Syria it once held, crushing its goal of establishing a "caliphate" that challenges existing borders.
The militants are left fighting for a final stretch inside Syria and desert regions along the Iraq-Syria border. Three years ago, they had defiantly erased that line, knocking down berms marking the frontier.
Since then, they have lost infrastructure, resources, supply routes, control over about 8 million people and -- most importantly -- administration of a contiguous territory. The extremist group may still prove to be a major challenge for months, however, as it turns to a clandestine insurgency.
Information for this article was contributed by Susannah George and Brian Rohan of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/05/2017
Print Headline: Iraq forces, ISIS fighters clash near Syrian border