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The Iraq Report: No ‘post-IS phase’ as militancy regains momentum Open in fullscreen

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The Iraq Report: No ‘post-IS phase’ as militancy regains momentum

Date of publication: 28 February, 2018

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Although many media organisations, pundits and politicians had declared that the Islamic State militant group had been defeated late last year, a series major attacks has shown that it is far from vanquished. IS has managed to inflict hundreds of casualties, including dozens of fatalities against security forces and powerful pro-Iran militants in a single operation. This demonstrates that IS lost its territory, but not its capability.


The Iraqi government has done little to reduce tensions in formerly IS-held territory, instead preferring a strategy of inflicting ‘public justice’ on alleged militants and their supporters. This has included sentencing to death the family members of suspected IS militants, which has raised concerns due to the judiciary’s track record of holding unfair trials. This is being used by extremists as a potent recruitment tool, as largely Sunni cities remain in ruins with little chance of representation in parliament following elections this May.


IS killing spree rages across Iraq


A new insurgency may be brewing, as the Islamic State group showed that it could still inflict deadly and highly effective attacks against government, Shia militia and pro-Baghdad Sunni tribal forces. IS’ effectiveness appears to be largely undiminished despite its loss of territory last year that saw all its major territorial holdings snatched away by the US-led coalition and federal government.


In recent weeks, IS militants have conducted a number of raids targeting Iraq’s energy infrastructure as well as its security forces.


IS operatives ambushed and killed almost 30 fighters from the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces in the northern district of Hawija earlier this month. According to the PMF, IS militants had disguised themselves in army uniforms and killed the PMF fighters as they were trying to pass through a fake checkpoint. However, other sources rubbished this claim, stating that all government checkpoints would have been known to PMF and other pro-Baghdad units in the area, and that the PMF militants who were killed were instead led into the ambush by an anonymous tipoff regarding a false IS presence.


IS militants also conducted other deadly attacks in nearby and oil-rich Kirkuk, killing at least two police officers last Saturday. The militants raided the Khabbaz oilfield and killed the police on guard duty, before making a swift getaway. The effect of the raid was to prompt the federal authorities to despatch three special forces units to Kirkuk to help counter the near-daily attacks.

Of course, these are not the first major attacks conducted by IS in 2018. Earlier in January, suspected IS bombers managed to strike Baghdad’s Tayyaran Square, killing 31 and wounding dozens more. These attacks came hot on the heels of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring victory over IS in early December.


Shortly after Abadi’s declaration, small western media outlets were also reporting a newly emergent threat who had dubbed themselves the “Steadfast Ones with White Flags”. However, later analysis showed that the “White Flags” – sometimes referred to as the “White Banners” – was likely just vanilla IS, but with Baghdad pushing the idea that it was a separate group to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that IS had not been defeated after all.


While IS is not the only active militant force opposed to Iraq’s central government, it is certainly the most high-profile. Baghdad’s inability to deal with IS definitively has led to the international perception that Iraq is incapable of handling its own domestic security. Its policies are not citizen-focused, leading to the creation of a fertile ground from which IS can flourish once again.

Not all doom and gloom: Iraqis in Baghdad this month celebrated Valentine's day with declarations of love and over-sized teddy bears [AFP]

Executions, repression fuelling anti-government resentment


Rather than deal with the symptoms of IS’ ability for continued survival, Iraqi authorities appear to instead be in a vengeful mood - which may be further exacerbating the militancy problem in the war-scarred country.


Sixteen Turkish women have been sentenced to death by an Iraqi court for joining IS, a judiciary official announced on Sunday. The women will be executed by hanging.


The verdict follows an Iraqi criminal court sentencing a German citizen to death in January while another German awaits trial; teenager Linda Wenzel who ran away from home to become an “IS bride” in Syria when she was only 15 years old. Another group of 12 women were sentenced to death or life in prison less than a fortnight ago.


Many of these women were captured following the conclusion of the battle for Mosul last summer, and claim that they did nothing apart from stay at home. Others have offered pleas that they were tricked into marriage to IS militants.


Either way, Baghdad has taken a hard line on these “IS brides”, and has not granted any leniency despite the common knowledge that IS routinely abused women for sexual gratification and it is unlikely they would have taken the wishes of their wives into account when making decisions, such as possibly forcing them to accompany their fighter husbands to Iraq and Syria.


While women are being held to account and executed for the behaviour of their husbands, pro-Iran Shia militants who were documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations as having perpetrated what may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity have not been indicted by the Iraqi judiciary. Not a single militiaman or pro-Baghdad soldier has been put on trial.


Despite government and PMF involvement with shocking human rights abuses, militias associated with the PMF have resumed abducting people on the basis of their sectarian identity.


Parliamentarian Abdulkarim Abtan held a press conference in January, calling on Prime Minister Abadi to open an investigation into a resurgence of abductions and kidnappings, crimes reminiscent of the worst of the sectarian bloodletting that left Iraq on the cusp of civil war between 2006 and 2009.


The fears stirred up by these militants are so significant that a group of cross-party MPs called for the elections to be delayed by up to six months in order to ensure IDPs are returned home safely and not subjected to any violence or intimidation. The deputies further added that proposed electoral reforms tabled last year had still not been voted upon, leading to further conflicts regarding the impartiality of Iraq’s Higher Electoral Commission.


It is unlikely that these politicians will be able to delay the elections until October as they desire. Most of the major political blocs – including influential segments of the State of Law coalition as well as Abadi’s Victory Alliance – are strongly pushing for elections to go ahead as planned in May, irrespective of the status of the more than three million internally displaced persons.

Mosul, after the battle to defeat the Islamic State group. Donors have pledged $30bn for reconstruction across the whole of Iraq [AFP]


International community has little trust in Baghdad


The Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s inability to mend fences across ethnic and sectarian lines – in addition to its rampant corruption problems – has led to a loss of trust from the international community.


Ostensibly to fund the reconstruction of infrastructure and cities ravaged by more than three years of war against IS, Baghdad recently partnered with Kuwait, the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union in an attempt to raise almost $90 billion.


Instead, the more than 1,500 invitees – including major world powers and UN Security Council members – pledged only $30 billion between them, with some of the largest donors and investors being Iraq’s own neighbours. Tellingly, the United States extended only $3 billion in credit without providing any donations or direct investments, while other western allies such as Australia pledged a paltry $18 million. Investments from private business was similarly miniscule.


The lack of enthusiasm for putting money in the hands of Baghdad may stem from the fact that it is perceived to be in the top 10 most corrupt countries on the planet, according to Transparency International. Investors and donors will be concerned that their money will not go towards redevelopment, but will instead serve only to enrich a small elite of corrupt Iraqi politicians.


Further, Iraqi parliamentarians have already tabled motions that would seek to block any redevelopment funds from reaching Sunni Arab areas most badly affected by the war with IS for sectarian reasons. These open statements by deputies of the most powerful and influential parties in Iraq will not inspire confidence that money will be well-spent.


In conjunction with Iraq’s inability to get a grip on the insecurity plaguing the country, and the fact that US intelligence assessments have clearly stated that IS remains a significant threat, Baghdad is having a hard time convincing the international community that it is once more a safe, transparent and fair country in which to live and do business. Until Iraq solves these systemic problems, it can expect international confidence to drop to levels even lower than it is today.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox

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