While this month, on 10th December 2018, marks the first anniversary of the Iraqi-proclaimed victory over the Deash terror group, there are some signs that Deash militants are regrouping, taking advantage of ongoing instability, and refocusing their attacks against the Iraqi government although Iraqi Security forces backed by US-led coalition forces are still trying to eliminate remaining Deash militants.
On 09th December 2017, Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the defeat of Deash and the end of Iraqi campaign to recapture its territory which had been controlled or invaded by Deash from 2014 to 2017 and then Prime Minister declared December 10th as a national holiday to be celebrated every year to mark the victory. Since the Iraqi government declared victory as a result of long-term operations against the DAESH terrorist organization in 2017, it has been seen a significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks throughout the country. However, the latest reports released by some security sources or analyst nowadays show that Deash is regrouping and increasing deadly terrorist attacks in disputed territories between Iraq Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) and Central Government.
Despite of ongoing operations of Iraqi Security Forces and Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) (Hashdi Shabi), The low-level attacks of Deash terrorist group have been seen to rise again especially at four strategic provinces such as particularly in southern Kirkuk, northern Salahuddin, southern Nineveh and northeastern Diyala. These regions are the home to the rich oil fields, strategic roads and several mountain areas which can provide a sanctuary for the remained cells of Deash terrorist group to hide. It is seen that Deash has freedom of movement especially at night across a large stretch of terrain which provides a sanctuary for its terrorist groups although Deash doesn’t control territory nowadays in Iraq as it did before.
The low-level attacks in these regions are seen mostly as hit-and-run attacks, kidnappings, assassinations and IED against Iraq Security forces, Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and especially local government officials, tribal elders and village chiefs (Mukhtars) in remote areas such as towns and villages that have been neglected by the central government. Over the past two months, dozens of people including tribal elders and village chiefs were abducted and killed or ransomed by Deash terrorist groups. Electricity infrastructure and oil pipelines were blown up. Armed groups dressed as security forces and setting up fake checkpoints hijacked trucks or other civilian vehicles and robbed travelers, caused the main Baghdad-Kirkuk highway unsafe for a period of weeks. What Deash does today is the ability to scare the population.
With these attacks Deash is attempting to turn the territories into an instable and unsecure area by increasing tensions between Kurds, Arabs (Sunni and Shia) and Turkmen, which are composing the ethnic structure of the region. Moreover, it is aiming to show its presence in the region and to weaken the Iraqi central government’s ability to provide security for civilians in these regions. According to most civilians in the region and security experts, the Iraqi government did well on the military side but it didn’t do well in reconstruction and bringing stability to the areas freed from Deash.
Today, Iraqi security forces are in better condition and well-prepared or organized to overcome any attacks than they were in 2014. However, there is a fragmented security structure operating in the area. Some are regular government troops such as Iraqi Federal Police, Elite Counterterrorism Forces and Popular Mobilization Forces mostly Shia militia known as Hashid Shabi. Others are volunteers organized by religious sect or local tribes. It is believed that these different security forces don’t efficiently communicate with one another. This lack of coordination among them has allowed Deash militants to set up fake checkpoints, posing as government security officials, then stop vehicles and kidnap civilians or members of security forces. An unpleasant example, In June 2018, Deash militants executed six members of Iraq’s Security Forces after kidnapping them at a fake checkpoint despite all security presence on the roads.
There are some major signs that Deash militants are regrouping, taking advantage of ongoing instability, and refocusing their attacks against the Iraqi government. But, it was inevitable that Deash would attempt to return after its crushing defeat because of not just the fragmentation of Iraq’s security structures and the government’s failure to deliver aids or reconstruction to the areas freed from Deash, but also the country’s ethnic-religious conflicts.
Alongside Iraqi Security Forces backed by international coalition-led by US, Iranian-backed Shia militias played a key role in pushing out Deash militants from areas around Kirkuk, Salahaddun, Diyala, Nineveh, and Anbar provinces. Many of these PMF continue to present these areas, particularly urban center, to provide security in appearance for local populations. However, according to local civilians PMF have failed to provide equal protection to Sunni and Shia populations. The PMF are just focused on urban centers and have not secured territory in rural areas particularly in parts of Kirkuk and Salahaddun provinces.
There are some allegations Iranian-backed Shia PMF continue to increase Shia-Sunni tensions especially in disputed areas of Iraq. According to local population particularly living in rural area towns and villages, encounters with Deash militants have become a near-daily occurrence especially at night. They say that Deash terrorists don’t just come at night, even daytime. For this reason they are afraid of being kidnapped, killed, slaughtered or robbed by the terrorists. Many local civilians are reluctant to speak openly about Deash terrorist for fear of being targeted by Deash militants. Moreover, Sunni population in the region fears the Shia-dominated PMF since they blame Sunni population for failing to secure the area and accuse the Sunni civilians of supporting Deash militants. It is claimed that many Sunni families were accused of being Deash collaborators and were transferred to the closely guarded camps by PMF and Iraqi Security Forces.
On the other hand, Iraq’s Kurdish minority has long desired independence with a new constitution granted the Kurds regional autonomy in 2005. But Kurdish Regional Government pushed for full independence. In September 2017, they held a controversial referendum for independence as including the disputed areas. The Iraqi Government didn’t recognize the results. In response to the vote in October 2017, The Kurdish Peshmerga forces were forced out of the disputed territories and Iraqi government forces and PMF regained control following the Kurdish Regional Government’s controversial referendum. And then the two sides stopped joint counter-Deash operations in these regions due to emerging politic tensions between two sides.
According to a recent report from Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) , Deash terrorist group has been particularly sustained in disputed territories with the number of attacks more than doubling in Kirkuk province a multi-ethnic city from 2017 to 2018.
Understandably, there are political sensitivities to having the Peshmerga redeploy to Kirkuk or other disputed regions. However, the coalition-led by United States forces Iraqi Central Government to return the reinstatement of joint ISF-Peshmerga operations in disputed regions, in addition, to have Peshmerga redeploy to disputed regions such as Kirkuk, Mosul, Diyala and Salahhadun because of increasing Deash activities. They are dictating to Baghdad that a multiethnic joint security force of Peshmerga and ISF would be much more effective at preventing Deash activities than Iranian-backed PMF. It is believed that The United States requests from the new Iraqi government to remove Iranian-backed PMF forces from Kirkuk and other disputed regions of Iraq and instead replace them with a multiethnic joint security force consisting of Peshmerga and ISF. In the other side, Iranian continues to support Iranian-backed PMF forces on fighting against Deash groups in disputed regions of Iraq. Furthermore, Iran applies pressure on the new Iraqi government not to disband PMF. As long as this trend between Iranian and American is underway, it’s likely that Deash will take advantage of this situation to recruit new militants and to conduct the terrorist attacks against security forces and civilians. And which will create a risk for not only the security and stability of Iraq but also all-region.
Furthermore, Political tensions in the country offer a perfect environment for Deash militants to regroup. After a long-term election process, Iraqi central government has recently focused on establishing a new government and is struggling with political turmoil. Although financial support was pledged by international community during an international conference in February 2018, the Iraqi government is moving slowly to start reconstruction, especially in war-worn cities like Mosul and Fallujah. Meanwhile, the corruption continues to be one of the risk factors that contribute to instability which Iraqi government has not found any solution yet. On the other hand, Iraqi government has faced the number of demonstrations and protests due to insufficient public services such as electricity or clean water, corruption and unemployment in the south of Iraq, particularly in the Basra region, since August 2018. As long as the Iraqi central government continues to fail to provide opportunities for these populations in the disputed areas and solve its political turmoil, Deash terrorist group could take advantages of the demonstrations and protests to seize on anger groups against Iraqi Government.
Finally, I think there is no need to even mention the years of unending conflicts and instability in Iraq, but there is a hidden story behind all these conflicts and political turmoil which are internally and externally promoted by third parties to damage the stability of both Iraq and Middle East. Despite a positive improvement compared to the previous years, the security situation in Iraq has continued to show a fragile structure and maintains its instability.
In order to eliminate the threat of a resurgent Deash terror in the country, Iraq needs not only a strong and unified response including both civil and military efforts but also a careful reconciliation process which is included all ethnic-religious groups in Iraq for a solution to the current crisis. The Iraqi government should focus on the country’s reconstruction and the fight against corruption as leaving aside political and sectarian debates. Otherwise, it is going to get worse if there is a failure to respond the factors that contribute to instability in Iraq such as political issues, ethnic-religious conflicts, reconstruction of war-torn areas and corruption.
Security Advisor and Coordinator
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Turkish.