Deadly attacks in Iraq rekindle fears of resurgent ISIS

ISIS ‘blows up’ oil wells, kills policeman in Kirkuk.

Wednesday 05/05/2021
A firefighter inspects the site of a car bomb attack in Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 15, 2021. (REUTERS)
A firefighter inspects the site of a car bomb attack in Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 15, 2021. (REUTERS)

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – A senior Kurdish official has said there are growing indications that Islamic State (ISIS) is trying to make a comeback after an increase in attacks in Iraq.

Suspected Islamic State (ISIS) fighters on Wednesday killed a policeman before blowing up two oil wells in Kirkuk, a northern province claimed by both Iraq’s federal government and the Kurds, officials said.

A security official said that “Islamic State group assailants” killed a policeman and “wounded two others.”

The attackers then “blew up wells 177 and 183 at the Bay Hassan field,” the oil ministry said in a statement.

The first fire was “brought under control in record time,” but “firemen are still active at the second” well, several hours after the attack, the ministry added.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk, home to key oilfields including Bay Hassan, in June 2014 after federal forces withdrew in the face of an ISIS offensive.

In late 2017, Baghdad officially claimed victory against ISIS, after a grinding military campaign supported by a US-led coalition.

But the Kurds , who run an autonomous government in Erbil , and the federal government dispute ownership of Kirkuk’s lucrative oilfields.

ISIS maintains an ability to perpetrate hit-and-run attacks, operating mainly at night and often exploiting the discord between Baghdad and Erbil.

At least 19 members of Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish security forces have been killed in recent days across the country, according to military statements and security officials, prompting calls from Iraq’s president to remain vigilant to the threat of a resurgent ISIS.

The attacks come after Baghdad’s deadliest suicide bombing in three years, claimed in January by the ultra hardline Sunni Islamist group and amid fears that a reduction of US-led forces could upset stability.

“It seems like (Islamic State) have re-organised,” Lahur Talabany, co-president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and a former intelligence chief said in an interview.

More than 25 deadly attacks

Originally an offshoot of al-Qaeda, ISIS took large swathes of Iraq and Syria from 2014, imposing a reign of terror with public beheadings and attacks by supporters abroad.

Islamic State was declared militarily defeated in 2017 but has since waged a steady insurgency across parts of northern Iraq and a porous border with neighbouring Syria.

Lahur Talabany, co-leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, speaks during an interview with in Sulaymaniya, Iraq May 3, 2021. (REUTERS)
Lahur Talabany, co-leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, speaks during an interview with in Sulaymaniya, Iraq May 3, 2021. (REUTERS)

Recent months have witnessed more than 25 deadly attacks that Iraqi officials attribute to Islamic State militants. The January bombing of a crowded Baghdad market killed more than 30 people.

Talabany said Islamic State had never been completely eliminated.

He said there are still several thousand Islamic state militants operating in Iraq. Some Western military officials say the number operating between Iraq and Syria could be more than 10,000.

Talabany was especially alarmed at the ability of Islamic State to recruit, including through social media. Three weeks ago, 38 Islamic state recruits, all Kurds between the age of 20 and 22, were arrested, he said.

“They were about to carry out attacks, they received equipment and bombs and explosives. This was a wakeup call,” Talabany recalled.

Talabany’s concerns are shared by Iraqi leaders. President Barham Salih said on Twitter last week that the country “cannot afford to be complacent” in combating Islamic State militants.

Fears over US withdrawal

A lack of coordination between the Iraqi military and forces belonging to the autonomous Kurdistan region have been blamed for some security failures.

The two sides fought against Islamic State but relations have deteriorated since a failed Kurdish bid for full independence in 2017, halted militarily by Baghdad.

Territory disputed by both sides remains fertile ground for Islamic State to operate in, Talabany said.

“Lack of coordination between Erbil (the Kurdish capital) and Baghdad has led to ISIS re-emerging and getting stronger and being more operational and capable,” he said.

In the last year, the United States has reduced its forces from around 5,000 that were stationed to help combat Islamic State to half that number.

As the military coalition that Washington leads reduces its deployment in Iraq, NATO is expected to fill the gap in training and coordination with Iraqi forces, but is not mandated to take part in combat operations.

Iranian-backed Shia militias, which have become the chief adversary of the United States in Iraq since the defeat of Islamic State, demand the complete withdrawal of US forces, something they have pushed for more aggressively since the United States killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani last year.

Talabany said he feared the implications of a US military drawdown. The United States withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, leaving security gaps that the militants were able to exploit.