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150+ IS Militants Handed Over to Iraq  02/21 06:42

   OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) -- U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the 
Islamic State group in Syria handed over more than 150 Iraqi members of the 
group to Iraq, the first batch of several to come, an Iraqi security official 
said Thursday.

   The official said the IS militants were handed over to the Iraqi side late 
Wednesday, and that they were now in a "safe place" and being investigated.

   The transfer marks the biggest repatriation from Syria of captured militants 
so far --- an issue that poses a major conundrum for Europeans and other 
countries whose nationals have been imprisoned as foreign fighters in Syria. 
The SDF is holding more than 1,000 foreign fighters in prisons it runs in the 
country's north, many of them Iraqis and Europeans.

   The Kurdish-led Syrian force --- and more recently President Donald Trump 
--- have called on these countries to take back their nationals. SDF says it 
cannot afford to keep the captured foreigners in Syria, but few of their 
countries want them back.

   Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi said Iraq will take 
back all Iraqi IS militants in Syria, as well as thousands of their family 
members.

   The Iraqi security official, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity in 
line with regulations, said the SDF are holding more than 20,000 Iraqis 
suspected of IS membership in prisons in northern Syria, adding that they will 
be transferred back home in batches.

   The handover came as the U.S.-backed Syrian force is involved in a standoff 
over the final sliver of land held by the Islamic State group in southeastern 
Syria, close to the Iraqi border.

   A few hundred people --- many of them women and terrified-looking children 
--- were evacuated Wednesday from the group's tiny tent camp on the banks of 
the Euphrates River, signaling an imminent end to the territorial rule of the 
militants self-declared "caliphate" that once stretched across a third of both 
Syria and Iraq.

   Some 300 IS militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be 
mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent 
camp in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. It is not clear how many 
civilians remain holed up inside, along with the militants.

   More trucks were sent in Thursday to the tip of a corridor leading to the 
camp to evacuate more people, but Associated Press journalists on the ground 
outside Baghouz said no civilians emerged.

   "We thought more civilians will come out today and we sent 50 trucks over," 
said an SDF commander who goes by his nom de guerre, Aram. "We don't know why 
they are not coming out."

   It was not immediately clear whether the 150 Iraqis repatriated late 
Wednesday were among those recently evacuated from Baghouz or militants who had 
been captured earlier.

   An Alabama woman who joined IS in Syria also made headlines after the U.S. 
said Wednesday she won't be allowed to return with her toddler son because she 
is not an American citizen. Her lawyer is challenging that claim.

   The 24-year-old Hoda Muthana, has said she made a mistake and regrets 
aligning herself with IS. She is now in a refugee camp in Syria along with 
others who fled the militants.

   The Baghouz enclave's recapture by U.S.-backed Syrian fighters would spell 
the territorial defeat of IS and allow Trump to begin withdrawing American 
troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in 
Syria's eight-year civil war.

   Few believe, however, that ending the group's territorial rule will end the 
threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through 
sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.


(KA)

 
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