Iraqi army carry their weapons during a fight with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani(reuters_tickers)
By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitaries captured an air base from Islamic State militants on Thursday, gaining a strategic foothold in the western desert as they push towards the Syrian border.
While regular Iraqi security forces engage in gruelling urban combat inside Mosul, the paramilitaries have been advancing against Islamic State through thinly populated terrain to the southwest.
Last week, the paramilitary groups, known collectively as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashid Shaabi, launched an offensive to retake the Qairawan district, around 95 km west of Mosul.
The Sahl Sinjar airbase is around 65 km east of the Syrian border.
"After rehabilitation, the air base will be an important base for Hashid troops and Iraqi helicopters to transport fighters and arms," said Karim al-Nuri of the powerful Badr Organisation.
"The air base will help chasing the terrorists in the open desert with Syria."
The head of the PMF, Falih al-Fayyadh, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Thursday and discussed "close and direct" military cooperation against Islamic State along their shared border, Syrian state media said.
Unlike regular Iraqi security forces, the PMF does not receive support from the U.S.-led coalition, which is wary of Iran's influence over the most powerful factions within the body.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen are fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad's government, which is backed by Iran, although the PMF is not officially involved across the border.
Officially answerable to the government in Baghdad, the PMF were formed when Islamic State overran around one third of Iraq including Mosul nearly three years ago and Iraqi security forces disintegrated.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Toby Chopra)