Improvised explosive devices remain the top concern in areas of Iraq and Syria once held by the Islamic State, said III Corps and Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Paul Funk II.

Funk, the III Corps and Fort Hood commander, updated local news media Monday on how the fight against ISIS is going during a video conference from Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve headquarters in Baghdad.

Funk and approximately 350 III Corps soldiers left for a year-long deployment in August to serve as the headquarters for more than 70 nations that are part of the task force, the global coalition to defeat ISIS. The coalition provides training, advice and assistance to Iraqi and Syrian forces, to include direct artillery and air strikes on enemy forces.

One of the largest problems facing the coalition at this time is counter-IED training, he said.

“In one section of Raqqah (Syria), ISIS left 8,000 IEDs — and that’s just one neighborhood,” Funk said. “The (IED) problem is significant and will take years to fix.”

The commander said external interference from various opposition groups and nations who don’t want the local Iraq and Syrian governments to succeed have hampered the ability of regional and city governments to return to normal after the ouster of ISIS. The interference comes from locals sympathetic to the ISIS ideology and nations such as Russia and Iran, who attempt to discredit the American presence in the region by discrediting the coalition.

“There is a big counter-IED mission in West Mosul (Iraq) right now, but there are forces out there trying to stop them,” Funk said. “We are winning here, but we have to act now and we will need the international community to assist.”

The counter-IED mission is to locate and destroy all devices left in the territories formerly held by ISIS, he said.

One incident that occurred earlier in the month was of “historic significance” but not reported, Funk said.

“The Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces met at their shared border and shook hands across the border,” Funk said. “It’s one of the greatest things to happen recently that’s been overlooked. It is historic for these armies to meet and secure their borders and establish border crossings.”

While the military forces from the two nations do not work directly together, the coalition supports both in their fight against ISIS, he said. While the Iraqi army is still clearing out pockets of terrorists, they are assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces by ensuring their border is secure and keeping foreign fighters from either joining the Islamic State in Syria or from finding a safe haven in Iraq.

“There has been a tremendous increase in the confidence and will of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Funk said. “In 2015, ISIS had over 7 million people under their evil control. Now, at almost Christmas-time 2017, about 6.8 million of those people have been liberated.”

According to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan P. Braga, the director of operations for the coalition, the two forces shaking hands across the border is a sign of a brighter future.

“This display of trust and unity between our two partners gives us hope for the future of Iraq and Syria. Their coordination and cooperation should strike fear into any enemy who wants to disrupt peace in the future,” Braga said in an e-mail correspondence with the Herald. “The border linkup is symbolic of coalition partner force strength, responsibility and the reestablishment of normalcy in the region. It also demonstrates Iraqis and Syrians taking control of their territories. A secure international border protects Iraqis and Syrians from remaining Daesh terrorists attempting to move into and across the region as the terrorist organization and its leaders attempt to flee the battlefield.”

Funk said the training provided by coalition military forces to the Iraqi army and allied Syrian forces has crippled the terrorist caliphate in the two nations, with all Iraqi cities freed from ISIS control and only small pockets of Syria still held by the Islamic State. Roughly 20 of the terrorist organization’s leaders have been captured or killed in recent weeks and about 70 foreign fighters have been captured trying to escape from those areas still controlled by ISIS.

An example of how well the training has been received is that the Iraqi army is currently the most popular government entity in Iraq, Funk said. Recently, an Iraqi army division stretched 120 kilometers (approximately 74.5 miles) wide and attacked 120 kilometers across the desert from west of Mosul to the border, taking out all ISIS terrorists in the way.

The Iraqi and Syrian forces are “positive about the future, but they realize it will take a lot of time, labor and resources” to recover from the devastation left behind by ISIS, Funk said. “They are continuing to track down IEDs, get displaced persons back in their homes and are working on the conditions that allowed ISIS to happen in the first place,”

With the physical caliphate established by ISIS nearly eliminated, Muslim nations in the region are working on partnering to ensure the hateful ideology of ISIS does not continue to spread, Funk said.

“Moderate Muslims are helping the world to see that the ISIS ideology is a false narrative,” he said.

Funk said all members of ISIS should be held accountable for their actions.

“The 8,000 IEDs in one neighborhood of Raqqah; every one of those is a bomb,” and that is just one portion of one city, Funk said. “Who is holding them accountable for what they’ve done? The world should, and should hunt them down. The world has to decide that it’s not going to tolerate (the ISIS ideology). It’s is difficult to defeat a single attack, but as long as the world goes against ISIS, the more people who decide not to stand on the side of evil, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

On a positive note, Central Texans should be proud of the job Fort Hood soldiers — along with coalition and local partner forces — are doing to defeat the Islamic State, Funk said.

“Since 9-11, the community hasn’t batted an eye (when asked) to support III Corps and Fort Hood,” he said. “I’m immensely proud to call (the Fort Hood area) home.”

dbryant@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7554

dbryant@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7554

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