Iraqi officials and citizens welcomed the Defence Ministry's recent announcement that the nation's western desert was cleared of al-Qaeda members, saying the campaign will yield positive results in Iraq's war on terrorism and provide economic benefits to the country.
The ministry announced June 16th that Iraqi forces completed a total clean-up of the western desert the previous evening.
The campaign, which lasted three months, led to the destruction of three al-Qaeda strongholds in the heart of the desert, including a training camp in the Deep Valley. Security forces imposed control over the desert area from Fallujah to Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, the defence ministry reported.
Lt. Gen. Tariq al-Azzawi, the Anbar military operations commander, told mawtani.com about the losses al-Qaeda suffered after its defeat.
"[Our] control over the Anbar desert means al-Qaeda loses the camps it uses to harbour foreign suicide bombers and gunmen coming from across the borders, and loses the last area where it had a comfortable presence in Iraq," he said.
The al-Qaeda gunmen had taken refuge in the desert after tribesmen and Sahwa forces members revolted against them in Iraqi cities, al-Azzawi said, adding that the group had lost its popularity among the people.
After the defeat, the army set up military barracks and bases in the heart of the desert to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to the area, al-Azzawi said.
Brig. Gen. Haqqi Ismail al-Fahdawi, commander of Iraq's western border guard forces, said clearing al-Qaeda out of the desert will have a positive impact on Iraq and neighbouring countries in the future.
"Iraq's western desert was a constant source of concern in past years because it was used as a rest and planning station by terrorist groups, gangs and drug and antiquities smuggling networks," he said.
"The situation will turn around positively for neighbouring states because infiltration from Iraq will diminish, especially the infiltration of drug smugglers and individuals wanted by the Iraqi judicial authorities," he said.
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Reesha, the leader of Iraq's Sahwa Councils, said the western desert is filled with minerals like sulphur and phosphates.
Investment in this mineral wealth was seriously affected because armed men were active in the area and were attacking citizens and the security forces, he said.
The Anbar Investment Commission was forced to remove phosphate mines and a mercury site in the western desert from its list of investment areas because of terrorist threats, Abu Reesha told Mawtani.
"Today, cleaning up the desert represents a great victory over terrorism, which will yield great economic benefits for citizens," he said.
"For many years, people were deprived of the opportunity to hunt and tour near the desert's hot springs and sulphuric streams, which are used for treatment from certain diseases," he said.
Brig. Gen. Khamees al-Dulaimi, commander of the army's rapid intervention forces in Anbar province, told mawtani.com about the successes of the Iraqi security forces and the tribesmen who helped them.
About 6,000 Iraqi soldiers took part in the campaign, which made use of military helicopters and three Anbar police units, he said.
"For the first time, [we used] satellites with help from states friendly to Iraq to combat terror, track al-Qaeda members' movements and observe their activity in the desert," he said.
Al-Dulaimi described the desert as the "most complex in the Middle East because of its harsh climate, rugged topography, its size and proximity to neighbouring countries".
"Al-Qaeda had a proper location to regroup, bolster its membership and attract recruits from inside and outside Iraq for ideological and military training, after being expelled from cities," he said.
Al-Dulaimi told mawtani.com that security forces captured 64 suspected al-Qaeda members, most of whom were wanted by the Iraqi authorities on various charges of terrorism, during the campaign.
He also praised tribesmen and Bedouins in the desert, including shepherds and valley settlers, who co-operated with security forces throughout the campaign.
"They provided highly valuable information which helped reduce the time needed to complete the operation, which was initially scheduled to end within five months," al-Dulaimi said.
The operation, he said, was named "Martyr Col. Jamal Abid" after the former army commander of the Kilo-160 desert area. Abid and two of his companions were killed in a clash with al-Qaeda members in late 2011 when the army attempted to free hostages that gunmen had taken to the desert.
Iraqi citizens said they welcomed the desert clean-up operation.
"Since the terrorists took over the desert and used it as a base, we heard of many savage crimes committed against innocent people travelling on the international expressway to Jordan and Syria," said Yasser Nazar, an employee of a Baghdad transport company.
This forced people to travel in convoys of five or six vehicles at a time to notify security forces in case they were assaulted by gunmen hiding in the desert, he said.
"But since the launch of the campaign three months ago, the road has gradually become secure," Nazar said, adding that now travellers stop at the rest stations to use the lavatories or to buy something they need during their trip.
Saif Jaafar al-Taie, a Baghdad University student from Aaneh in Anbar, said he was relieved.
"We used to hear horrific stories of what armed groups were doing in the desert, which made me take another road, although it was much longer, to reach my hometown and avoid the international expressway passing through the desert area," he said.
Al-Taie said he visited his hometown a few days ago and used the expressway after he heard about the clean-up operation and saw Iraqi soldiers deployed in the area.
The words "No authority shall be above the law" were written on a sign posted at a checkpoint, he added.
"I felt so happy reading this sentence and with the sight of the soldiers who welcomed us, which was much better than the sight of gunmen whom we feared and avoided," al-Taie said.