Iraq on Monday launched the third phase of a military operation in the north to combat ISIS sleeper cells as US-led coalition forces begin to withdraw from the country.

The military announced victory over the terrorist group in 2017 but in recent months ISIS militias have increased ambushes and attacks across the north, killing and wounding Iraqi and foreign security personnel.

“We announce the start of the third phase of the ‘Heroes of Iraq’ military operation to clear and inspect areas of Saladin, Diyala, Samarra, and Kirkuk from ISIS remnants,” Yehia Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi ministry of defence said.

The operation will be conducted by the Iraqi army, members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Iraqi federal police and will be supported by Iraqi air forces and coalition warplanes, Mr Rasool said.

The operation will “target 4,853 square kilometres to search and chase terrorist elements, to raise our military presence and to ensure stability in those areas,” he said.

The terror group still has bases in rural areas of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Saladin and Mosul provinces.

ISIS still has around 3,000 to 4,000 active fighters and 8,000 inactive fighters in Iraq, according to the Centre for Global Policy.

Since 2014, the main mission of US troops deployed in Iraq has been to defeat ISIS.

The US has some 5,200 troops in Iraq as part of an international coalition fighting the terror group.

Yet, thousands of foreign troops from the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS left Iraq this year due to coronavirus concerns, which halted the military training programmes they facilitated.

It still remains unknown how many troops have been relocated outside of the country.

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