RABIAA, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s defense minister on Wednesday expressed concerns that the Islamic State group could take advantage of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to destabilize Iraq, saying that a number of militants have been able to escape detention in Syria amid the chaos and cross into Iraq.
Speaking to a group of journalists touring the Iraq-Syria border with him, Najah al-Shammari urged the Iraqi government to work quickly on sealing the border.
“The Iraqi government should act quickly to close illegal crossings between Iraq and Syria,” al-Shammari said. He did not elaborate or say how many IS members have crossed into Iraq. He said that some of them are still at large while others have been detained.
There have been concerns in Iraq that the Turkish military operation against Kurdish fighters in neighboring Syria might lead to the escape of Islamic State group prisoners from detention centers run by Syrian Kurdish fighters. Some 10,000 IS members are being held in prisons across territory in northern Syria. Over the weekend, 780 supporters fled from a camp for the displaced in the town of Ein Issa.
On Wednesday, an official with an organization that assesses terror threats in Belgium told a parliamentary committee that at least two Belgian militants fled their detention center in Syria.
Paul Van Tigcheld, head of Belgium’s threat analysis organ, OCAD, told the committee Wednesday: “We know about five (foreign terrorist fighters), three women and two men, who were in camps or prisons, and who are no longer there.”
Later on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said foreign fighters from the Islamic State group who might flee Syrian detention centers and go to Iraq should be arrested and sent to trial there.
Macron, speaking in the southern French city of Toulouse, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will travel Thursday to Iraq to speak with local authorities about French IS detainees.
Macron said “it’s too soon” to say if some members of IS may seek to reach the European Union and France.
He insisted that Turkey’s offensive is helping the IS group’s “re-emergence” and called on the United States and other European countries to increase pressure on the country so that it ends its military operations.
IS once held large parts of Iraq and Syria, where the extremists declared a so-called caliphate in 2014. IS was defeated in Iraq two years ago and in Syria in March but the extremists’ sleeper cells have continued to carry out attacks in both countries.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Saleh discussed with a visiting U.S. official the situation in northern Syria and ways of preventing Islamic militants from taking advantage of the chaos to rise again.
A statement by Saleh’s office said he spoke Wednesday in Baghdad with David Schenker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, about ways of supporting Iraq to preserve its security “amid the current challenges.”
The statement said both officials said the extremists should not be given a chance “to revive their criminal activities and threaten the region and world’s security.”
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Sylie Corbet in Paris and Raf Casiert in Brussels contributed to this report.