The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)* militants have intensified their attacks in recent weeks targeting both civilians and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), raising serious concerns about stability and security at a time when thousands of Iraqi internally displaced persons (IDPs) are being forced to return to the areas where the incidents have taken place.
ISIS, also known as IS and the Arabic acronym of Daesh, controlled a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014, including Mosul, the second-largest city after Baghdad. Backed by a US-led military coalition, Iraq declared success over ISIS in late 2017, but the group has continued to pose a threat to the country’s stability, particularly in the “death triangle” provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin.
According to Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution, Kirkuk, large districts of Diyala, and Salahuddin are considered disputed areas between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish Peshmerga forces controlled Kirkuk after the Iraqi army could not defend the city against IS attacks in 2014. But the Iraqi troops expelled the KRG forces on October 16, 2017, shortly after the failed Kurdish referendum for independence from Iraq held on September 25 of that year. The lack of coordination between the ISF and the Peshmerga forces is seen as a key reason for ISIS’ increasing assaults.
The lack of coordination between the ISF and the Peshmerga forces is seen as a key reason for ISIS’ increasing assaults.
Six Iraqi security personnel and three civilians were killed in an ambush carried out by ISIS in Al-Mashak, a town in the Salahuddin province – 200 km north of Baghdad – on November 21. Four people, including a police officer, were killed and three others injured in early November when ISIS militants detonated a road-side bomb in eastern Diyala governorate. Three security officers were also killed in an ISIS attack in Iraq’s western Anbar province on November 22.
Although the Iraqi federal government and the KRG have recently established several joint coordination centers to advance their fight against ISIS, they have not taken strategic steps, allowing the IS militants to continuously exploit the security vacuum created by their discord.
“There is no joint operations between us, and the ISF do not let us operate independently against [ISIS],” Brigadier General Dler Sherko, Commander of the KRG’s third infantry brigade, told Inside Arabia in a phone interview. “There are many reasons behind the [ISIS] resurgence, mainly the security vacuum in these areas.” Sherko’s brigade is positioned in areas near Khanaqin district of Diyala, where several ISIS crimes against civilians have occurred.
Moreover, tens of Iranian-backed Shiite factions within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are deployed in Salahuddin, yet they could not curb ISIS’ activities. Instead, they themselves are being accused of committing hideous crimes against local Sunni and Kurdish citizens, including the killing of 12 people from the Sunni community in the Al-Farhatiya area of Salahuddin on October 17. The massacre led the Sunni tribes to demand Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, to expel the PMU from their areas.
Adding to concerns, the Iraqi government recently decided to abruptly close down all IDP camps across the country and force the displaced to return to their places or origin, which were badly damaged during the three-year fight against ISIS. The move is putting the lives of thousands of IDPs in great jeopardy of being targeted by ISIS as well as other sectarian militant groups.
The US administration’s recent decision to withdraw hundreds of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has exacerbated worries.
The US administration’s recent decision to withdraw hundreds of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has exacerbated worries of what could be a “revival kiss” given to ISIS.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command overseeing American military operations in the Middle East, declared on November 19 that ISIS still poses a long-term threat in Iraq and Syria.
Similarly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned against any early withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan on November 17. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has described the US withdrawal from both countries as “a mistake.”
“The presence of 2,500 US [security] advisors and trainers in Iraq is essential to continue coordinating with Iraqi Security Forces and maintain the pressure on ISIS against its resurgence,” Bilal Wahab, Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Inside Arabia. “The presence of US forces allows the Iraqi and US governments, should the threat of ISIS or any other rise, to stand in defense of Iraq’s sovereignty and stability.”
Iraq is the second largest oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and it almost entirely relies on oil revenues for state expenditures. The Iraqi government is currently facing a serious financial challenge due to the collapse of the global oil market and rampant internal corruption, especially by outlawed militias at the border gates. The economic crisis and the pandemic have cast their shadows over the ISF’s resolve to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Iraq’s government faces a political crisis as it plans to hold free and fair snap parliamentary election by next June.
Iraq’s government also faces a political crisis as it plans to hold free and fair snap parliamentary election by next June. Many traditional ruling parties do not support the decision to hold early elections as they fear losing their seats in the parliament. These parties are trying to create any obstacle possible in order to have the upcoming elections cancelled—even if it means aiding IS in recapturing large swaths of Iraqi territories.
“The reduction of US personnel is a political nod to Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi and his leadership of the Iraqi ISF,” Wahab said. “It remains uncertain, however, if it will appease the Iranian proxies who use US military presence in Iraq to carry out attacks against the Iraqi government, people, and foreign representatives.”
Many Iraqi politicians are blamed for the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014 and have yet to be held accountable. Moreover, closed-doors procedures by Iraqi politicians, the uncertainty of future US policies towards Iraq and Iran under Joe Biden’s administration, and increasing ISIS attacks all signal major challenges ahead for the Iraqi people and the ISF, which could lead to another ISIS rebirth in Iraq.
* The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and officially known as the Islamic State (IS). The group is also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.