Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s fragile victory

The Iraqi government has declared the end of the war against the Islamic State group terrorists, but how can it be sure they will not make a comeback, asks Salah Nasrawi


Iraq’s fragile victory
Iraq’s fragile victory

Last month Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State (IS) group after Iraqi forces drove its last remnants from nearly one-third of the country that had been under the terrorist group’s control.

Leaders of the International Coalition that helped Iraq to fight IS also boasted that the jihadi group had been crushed in Iraq and Syria and the militants no longer held any significant territory thanks to back-up from their forces.

The announcements came months after the Iraqi armed forces supported by the US-led coalition regained control over Iraq’s major cities. The declarations also meant Iraqi forces had secured Iraq’s western desert and the entire border with Syria and marked the end of major operations against IS.

Yet, with the focus shifting to mopping up remnants of the militants who had escaped or gone underground in the vast desert border areas between Iraq and Syria, attention is now turning to the future of the militants and whether they could regroup.

Many analysts believe that IS may have been downed but not defeated and have warned that the end of the large-scale military offensives does not mean the end of the terrorist threat in both Iraq and Syria.

Days after the declarations of victory, IS militants in Iraq resumed random operations against the Iraqi security forces and Shia militias in many parts of the country, including the newly liberated urban areas.

Indeed, there are signs that the extremist group in Iraq is already returning to its insurgent roots while its cells and affiliates abroad continue their brutal attacks.

In recent weeks, bombs suspected of being planted by IS jihadists have exploded in several parts of Iraq, including Tikrit, a town taken back from IS militants in 2015.

On 24 December, the militants attacked Walid Al-Juhaishi, a tribal leader in Kirkuk Province, killing him and his wife. Simultaneously, another IS group assaulted an army officer passing in his car on the Kirkuk-Hawija highway.

Two days later IS militants attacked a village near Qara Tappa south of Kirkuk and killed Mohamed Hameed, a prominent tribal figure who had led a local group in the fight against the group.

The Iraqi security forces said on 26 December that some 45 people, including members of the security forces, had been killed in Hawija in clashes with IS terrorists operating in nearby villages.

In Al-Adhaim in the Diyalah Province south of Kirkuk, three policemen were killed and three others were wounded when militants attacked their checkpoint.

The story is similar in Mosul, which was liberated from IS in July. The Iraqi security forces imposed a curfew in Mosul last week and began a house-to-house search for militants who are believed to be hiding in the sprawling city.

The curfew was imposed after gunmen believed to be IS members attacked security forces checkpoints in Mosul and assaults on officers and local officials in the city. In one attack, a bomb killed three children.

The Iraqi police have said that IS sleeper cells operating in the city may be planning to launch large-scale attacks including suicide bombings. They said they had found leaflets with IS signs threatening that the group would return to Mosul to re-establish its so-called Islamic caliphate.

During the crackdown several arrests were made and ammunition depots were also found, the police said.

In Badush, a small town northwest of Mosul, a bomb killed three policemen and wounded a fourth. The bodies of two police conscripts were also found shot in the head.

Tension is high in other parts of Iraq where the security forces expect the group will resort to guerrilla warfare after losing its urban bastions last year.

Last week, Shia paramilitary groups were reportedly deployed to the western frontier to back up border guards who had come under fire from IS forces in Syria.

A spokesman for the paramilitaries called Kataib Hizbullah, Jaafar Al-Husseini, told reporters that the Shia militia group was fighting IS militants near Albu Kamal in Syria. He said the militia fighters had been on the Syrian side of the border, a claim later denied by the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.

Meanwhile, Iraqi and coalition warplanes have continued to pound sites and guesthouses across northern and western Iraq where IS members are believed to be hiding. On Friday, security forces said an IS commander and several militants had been killed in Diyalah in an air attack.

All these incidents raise large questions about whether the terrorist group, which has lost control over vast territories in Iraq and Syria, is making a comeback in order to maim and kill in areas it no longer occupies.

Al-Abadi is confident that the Iraqi security forces have achieved a decisive victory over the terrorist group and will now “rout” its remnants. He has also promised Iraqis a new era of stability.

The US-led coalition is downplaying the possibility of the group coming together again, citing its loss of manpower and territory. It says that IS has lost 98 per cent of the territory it once held, and fewer than 1,000 IS fighters now remain. These are being hunted down in the desert regions in eastern Syria and western Iraq, the coalition says.

But with most of the terrorists believed to have disappeared into rural sanctuaries and nearby hilltops or desert caves and valleys, it would be premature to declare a total victory over the organisation in Iraq and Syria.

One serious concern is that thousands of IS foreign fighters faded away after the Iraqi security forces took over the urban centres from IS in the two neighbouring nations.

Some of the tens of thousands of these foreign fighters have now headed back to their countries of origin, or have joined terrorist groups in countries struggling with their own jihadist-led insurgencies, such as Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan.

IS-inspired or organised terrorist attacks have dominated the news over the last few days with atrocities taking place in Afghanistan, Russia and Egypt. The group has claimed responsibility for barbarous attacks on a Shia cultural centre in Kabul, a supermarket in St Petersburg, and a Coptic church in Cairo.

Cities in the United States, Canada and Europe will remain under threat as some of the tens of thousands of IS foreign fighters head back to their countries of origin.

Warnings that IS may resurface or transmute into a new and equally brutal organisation should be taken seriously. The extremists have lost momentum and significant amounts of territory, but they can still maintain the element of surprise of a guerrilla war and are leaving dangerous men behind them.

Yet, the IS escapees and the group’s war tactics are only part of the problem. The extremists seem still to have local support and popular sympathy among disgruntled Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, and these could be manipulated to plot and carry out attacks.

Equally troubling is the Iraqi government’s failure to move towards stabilisation efforts in rebuilding the Sunni cities destroyed by the war on IS and to return displaced people to their homes and restore peace to the affected areas.

Six months after taking back Mosul where he had proclaimed himself “caliph,” IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is still at large and is probably hiding near the Iraqi-Syrian border. As long as Al-Baghdadi stays alive, he will remain a source of inspiration for the group’s supporters and may help recruit fresh support.

As the parties to celebrate the liberation of the major cities in Iraq from IS ended and the fireworks dimmed, Iraqis realised that it is probably premature to declare final victory over IS. With many of the destabilisation factors in Iraq, primarily the communal struggle, continuing, Al-Abadi’s victory lap could be premature.

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