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The Iraq Report: IS leader Baghdadi returns as Iraq seeks regional role

Baghdadi [L] is pictured with three unidentified associates in the video [Twitter]

Date of publication: 2 May, 2019

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This week in Iraq, Islamic State group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi resurfaces after almost half a decade in hiding while Baghdad hopes to further its regional influence in the region.

One of the most elusive terrorist leaders in recent history, Islamic State group [IS] leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has resurfaced after almost half a decade in hiding. Apart from one video appearance in Mosul in June 2014, he has only released rare audio recordings to suggest he was still alive.

In conjunction with numerous reports of his death, his lack of appearances resulted in a loss of morale amongst the IS faithful which is likely now to have been bolstered by his reappearance.

Meanwhile, Iraq is still grappling with the fallout of the war against IS, with news of torture to extract confessions of IS membership still abounding despite numerous reports by international human rights organisations. The social fabric in Iraq has been wracked by a mixture of the government's institutional sectarianism against the Sunni Arab community as well as IS' savagery towards minorities, including Yazidi women whose children are now being barred from their mothers' communities.

Read also: Why Iraq's courts aren't recognising IS crimes against the Yazidis

Despite all these challenges and the inherent instability, Iraq is attempting to reacquire its role as a regional power though this time in the diplomatic sphere as a mediator rather than as a military power as in former Baathist leader Saddam Hussein's day. Iraq sits between its primary patron Iran on the one hand and Tehran's regional foe Saudi Arabia on the other, with both rivals seeking to increase influence in the strategic Middle Eastern country to further their own agendas.

IS leader resurfaces after five years in hiding

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad al-Samarrai – released his first video recorded address since his first appearance atop the pulpit of the now destroyed Grand Nuri Mosque in Mosul in June 2014.

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The self-proclaimed "Caliph" of IS' proto-state has made two video appearances and a scattering of audio recordings since he first came to global attention five years ago.

In his latest video released late last month, Baghdadi acknowledged the defeat of IS and the end of their caliphate in the Syrian town of Baghouz earlier this year and threatened "revenge" attacks.

He also praised the deadly Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka and claimed his organisation was responsible for targeting the "Crusaders" – a reference to the fact that many of the victims were Christians.

Read also: For my Muslim family in Sri Lanka, life has changed forever

Baghdadi did not physically appear in the segment where he praised the Sri Lanka bombers, but his voice could be heard. This suggests that the video was originally produced by IS sometime after the battle for Baghouz but preceded the Sri Lanka terror attacks. Being one of the world's most wanted men would also mean that he would not be readily available to re-shoot videos and audio recordings would have to suffice, no matter how pressing the potential propaganda benefits may be.

Being one of the world's most wanted men would also mean that he would not be readily available to re-shoot videos and audio recordings would have to suffice, no matter how pressing the potential propaganda benefits may be

Baghdadi's self-coronation as caliph in 2014 acted as a lightning rod that attracted extremists and radicals from around the world to travel to live, fight, and die in Iraq and Syria under the guidance and leadership of the IS leader who had positioned himself as a divinely anointed ruler.

Analysts have argued that it is likely that Baghdadi's latest video was released as it became more and more difficult for IS to keep its recruits and supporters motivated to fight and die for a caliph they had not seen in almost half a decade as the so-called "Islamic State" collapsed before their eyes.

It may also be the case that by encouraging lone wolf attackers and terrorist cells to conduct attacks globally in the name of IS and use its branding, Baghdadi is shifting back to the decentralised al-Qaeda model from which his organisation first developed. Rather than a strategy of holding territory and imposing his will through a centralised proto-state structure, Baghdadi is now likely to follow in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden whose leadership of al-Qaeda gradually became more and more symbolic as his organisation was forced further and further underground.

With Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi commenting on Baghdadi's reappearance as being demonstrative of the fact that IS remains a global threat, it is perhaps able to draw on recruits in a way al-Qaeda was never able to merely because it was the first Muslim extremist group to establish a "caliphate" – no matter how short-lived that experiment was. 

Fallout of war on IS continues

While Baghdadi's resurfacing has snatched headlines around the world, the fallout from the war against IS continues.

Relatives of convicted prisoners in Mosul – IS' former Iraqi capital – have accused Iraqi security forces of using severe torture methods to extract false confessions of IS membership. Once convicted, these prisoners are usually placed on death row awaiting execution.

Mosul resident Mayada Omar told The Associated Press her brother, Khalid, was taken from their family home in the Old City of Mosul in July 2017, allegedly based on a tip-off from a neighbour. Khalid was convicted of life imprisonment in December 2018 after confessing to membership of IS.

Mayada visited her brother in prison and claims the confession was taken forcibly through "unbelievable torture".

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"When I went to visit my brother [in prison], he told me it was all because of the torture, that he confessed to pledging loyalty [to IS] because of torture," Omar told AP.

Another Mosul resident, Mohammed Ali, said security forces took his sons, Adnan and Fahd, in April 2018. Adnan was given the death penalty in January 2019 for membership of IS, while Fahd remains in pre-trial detention in Mosul.

Fatima, their mother, said she went to see them in the prison where Adnan told her that he had been tortured for his confession.

Although the family members' claims have not been verified, they match accusations made in reports published by Human Rights Watch [HRW].

In March, HRW released a scathing report detailing how Iraqi Kurdish authorities had tortured thousands of Iraqi children in custody to force them into signing false confessions of IS membership.

In March, HRW released a scathing report detailing how Iraqi Kurdish authorities had tortured thousands of Iraqi children in custody to force them into signing false confessions of IS membership

In April, HRW released yet another damning report detailing how prisoners, particularly in Mosul, were being tortured through beatings, waterboarding, and being suspended from ceilings with their hands behind their backs, often causing shoulders to become dislocated.

The overwhelming majority of the victims of Iraqi state abuses and violence have been Sunni Arabs, demonstrating a clear sectarian and racist motivation.

Meanwhile, elders within the Yazidi ethno-religious minority group have backtracked on a previous pledge to take in the children of former IS Yazidi sex slaves.

Thousands of Yazidi women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by IS, many of whom have now borne children. The decision of the Yazidi Spiritual Council to essentially banish and ostracise blameless children will not only discriminate and endanger children who are four-years-old and younger, but it also places hundreds of Yazidi women in horrific circumstances of either abandoning their children or their communities.

Iraq seeks regional role as mediator

Despite grappling with its internal problems of terrorism, incessant violence, corruption, and the institutional use of torture, Baghdad is seeking to further its regional influence in the Middle East.

Iraq hosted a multilateral meeting of six of its neighbours – Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – in Baghdad in late April. The meeting achieved no diplomatic breakthroughs, but was hailed for managing to bring regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia to the same table.

The Iraq Report: Torture in Iraq prisons continues
The Iraq Report: Torture in Iraq prisons continues

The meeting saw high level parliamentary delegations from all six countries and was chaired by the Iraqi parliamentary speaker, Mohammed al-Halbusi.

The meeting appeared to attempt to stress Iraq's desired neutrality between its neighbours while seeking their financial and political support.

"Today, Iraq is building a promising strategic partnership with all neighbouring countries without any reservations or favouring any party," Halbusi said.

Iraq has been trying to position itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, claiming to take no side in any of the conflicts between its neighbours.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting regional proxy wars across the region, particularly in Yemen where Tehran backs the Houthi rebels while Riyadh supports the transitional government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Iraq has been trying to position itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, claiming to take no side in any of the conflicts between its neighbours

In Syria, both Turkey and Iran back opposing sides, with Ankara supporting factions within the Free Syrian Army and Tehran throwing its weight behind the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, Iraq's attempts to portray itself as being unbiased may be doomed to failure as countries may perceive its actions to be in Iran's interests. For instance, Iraq has been aggressively lobbying the Arab League to re-admit Syria – Tehran's ally – as a full member following its expulsion after the Assad regime began killing protesters en masse.

While Saudi Arabia is keen to lobby Iraq to try and prise it away from Iran's orbit, it is almost certainly under no illusions as to where Iraqi politicians' loyalties truly lie.

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