Middle East

Islamic State conflict: On the frontline in Iraq's Anbar province

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Media captionAhmed Maher was the first BBC journalist to travel to Anbar province for five months

Iraq's Sunni-dominated province of Anbar has seen some of the fiercest fighting between militants from the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) and government forces since 2014.

The BBC's Ahmed Maher travelled to Karma, a town 50km (30 miles) west of the capital Baghdad that sits on one of the frontlines.

The scars of war were obvious as we drove along the road to Karma - from bullet-riddled, abandoned houses, to trenches and sandbags, and empty shell and bullet casings scattered across the tarmac.

We travelled to the town under the protection of the Badr Brigade, one of the powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias which have been enlisted to win back Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, after its dramatic fall over the weekend.

One of the war-weary militiamen, Basem Salami, used a map to explain the importance of Karma.

"You see how close it is to Baghdad and Ramadi? It's in the middle between both cities," he said. "Karma will be one of the key fronts in the battle for Anbar."

The militiaman was critical of the US-led coalition against IS, which had urged the Iraqi government not to ask Shia militia to join a major offensive in Anbar launched last month, in case they drove more of the province's Sunnis into supporting the jihadists.

Image copyright Ahmed Maher
Image caption The Shia militiamen fighting in Karma were critical of the US-led coalition's tactics

"If we had intervened early in Anbar, Ramadi would not have fallen into their hands," he asserted.

After a one-hour drive, we reached our destination: the eastern outskirts of Karma.

We were taken to an abandoned house that was being used as an operations room and monitoring centre by government troops and allied militiamen.

"As you can see on this computer screen, we monitor the movement of IS militants through a sophisticated camera mounted on a tower outside," said Ahmed Talibawi, a commander of the Iraqi army's 8th Brigade, pointing to holes used by IS snipers.

Image copyright Ahmed Maher
Image caption Government forces approach the defensive line in Karma with caution

We then went to one of the government's defensive lines in Karma, sheltering behind military vehicles as commanders warned us that we were within range of IS weapons.

As noon approached, we heard the "adhan", or call to prayer, and some of the Shia militiamen temporarily left their positions.

These fighters are deeply religious. They consider IS a terrorist group and never use its name in conversations.

They said their prayers gave them the strength to win the looming battle for Anbar.