The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) surrendered one of its last bastions in Iraq on Sunday as the net closed on the group’s control of the porous Iraqi-Syrian border.
ISIS fighters remaining in the northwestern Iraqi town of Baaj abandoned the city late Saturday. Iraq’s government-backed Shiite paramilitary forces entered the city Sunday, marking a decisive victory for the coalition seeking to overthrow ISIS from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The town, west of Mosul near the Iraqi-Syrian border, has served as one of the hideouts for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since he delivered his first and only sermon as the group’s leader from Mosul’s Al-Nuri Mosque in July 2014.
Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units, fighting alongside Iraqi government forces, display, upside down, the ISIS flag during a military operation aimed at the centre of Baaj, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad on October 19, 2015. They announced the capture of Baaj, a different town of the same name but 300 kilometers to the west, on the Iraqi-Syrian border, on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, said in a statement that the capture was a “big and qualitative achievement” in the Mosul campaign.
Baghdadi is believed to have fled Mosul for good before Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, initiated a large-scale assault on Iraq’s second city in October.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to Newsweek in March that Baghdadi was no longer in Mosul, but now moves across the Iraqi-Syrian border in some of the largely lawless areas where the group retains control in both countries.
“He moves between al-Hajin in Syria and al-Ba'aj in Iraq,” the official said. The western Iraqi border has served as a key transit point and supply line for ISIS fighters and resources in and out of Syria. ISIS still controls a stretch of the border.
The U.S.-led coalition is leading the extensive search for Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted extremist, having dispatched a ground expeditionary force to capture or kill members of the group’s leadership. Coalition airstrikes have also targeted Baghdadi, with several reports of life-changing injuries to the ISIS leader, and a temporary replacement for him while he recovered.
Washington has also dispatched its expeditionary targeting force, a group of elite U.S. commandos, to hunt down ISIS leaders and senior operatives in Iraq and Syria.