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Iraq will repatriate Islamic State fighters held in Syria, prime minister says

A screen grab from video posted Feb. 12, 2019, shows U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters looking at smoke rising from a shell that targeted Islamic State group militants, in the village of Baghouz, Deir El-Zour, eastern Syria.

SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS/AP

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA | Associated Press | Published: February 13, 2019

BAGHDAD — Iraq will repatriate Iraqi members of the Islamic State group held by U.S.-backed fighters in Syria as well as thousands of their family members, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said.

Abdul-Mahdi told reporters late Tuesday that families of those fighters will also be brought back and that tent settlements will be prepared to host them. Abdul-Mahdi's comments came after a meeting he held in Baghdad with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

A senior Iraqi intelligence official said up to 20,000 Iraqis, including ISIS fighters, their families and refugees will be brought back home by April where many of them will live in a tent settlement in western Anbar province.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said ISIS members will be interrogated by Iraqi security agencies.

Abdul-Mahdi's announcement came a week after the U.S. called on other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS and who are now being held by Washington's local partners.

The Syrian Democratic Forces say they detained more than 900 foreign fighters during their U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria. The SDF are currently battling to drive the extremists from their last pocket of territory.

The SDF has warned they may not be able to continue to hold the ISIS fighters after the withdrawal of American forces from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump in December.

A U.S. State Department official said last week that if the fighters can't be repatriated, though, the detention center on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be used to hold them "where lawful and appropriate."

A U.S. official said Guantanamo is the "option of last resort." The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. has identified about 50 people among the more than 900 held by Syrian forces as "high value" suspects that could be transported to Guantanamo if they are not repatriated.

Sending Islamic State prisoners to Guantanamo would open up new legal challenges, according to experts.

Last month, France's Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media that a handful of French jihadis had already returned home and more would follow soon after the departure of American troops. Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined ISIS and has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship. Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.

In Syria, meanwhile, SDF fighters continued in their last push against ISIS in their latest offensive that began Saturday night. Their advance has been slow due to the extremists' use of mines, sniper fire, suicide attacks and a network of tunnels.

Since the latest push began on the village of Baghouz and nearby area, 19 SDF fighters and 27 ISIS gunmen, including eight suicide attackers, have been killed, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 20,000 people have left the IS-held area and most of them have been moved to al-Hol camp settlement in Syria's northeastern province of Hassakeh, where human conditions are miserable and more than two dozen children have died in recent weeks.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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