Renewed fears in Iraq over ISIS resurgence

Concerns over the regrouping of ISIS militants are not limited to infiltration through the Syrian border.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A 2017 file picture shows a member of the Iraqi special forces wearing a watch belonging to a former ISIS fighter in Mosul’s western industrial district. (AFP)
A not-too-distant past. A 2017 file picture shows a member of the Iraqi special forces wearing a watch belonging to a former ISIS fighter in Mosul’s western industrial district. (AFP)

LONDON - Fears of a resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq have increased as US-backed forces tighten their grip on the last bit of territory held by the militants in Syria. The ISIS-held village of Baghouz is not far from the Iraqi border.

Iraqi security officials said they feared ISIS militants fleeing Baghouz during an attack by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would infiltrate Iraq and regroup into sleeper cells.

An increase in Iraqi forces on the border was apparent. “Mortar and artillery positions now line what was previously used as farmland for local inhabitants whose sheep, cows and chickens watch warily as armoured vehicles and men in desert sand uniforms ply the narrow road,” reported Al-Monitor website.

“We have thermal cameras and we are targeting them every night with artillery between around 9pm and 3am,” an Iraqi major told Al-Monitor.

The 'most hardened' ISIS fighters

An unidentified Iraqi intelligence official told the Associated Press that the SDF handed Iraqi authorities more than 150 ISIS fighters. The fighters were reportedly the first batch of some 500 ISIS militants to be transferred to Iraq.

The US-led coalition said “the most hardened” fighters remain in Baghouz but the SDF did not rule out that some ISIS militants may have left the Syrian village with civilians. In the past, ISIS militants escaped from SDF prisons or made deals with Kurdish militiamen to secure safe passage.

Concerns over the regrouping of ISIS militants are not limited to infiltration through the Syrian border.

“In Iraq’s remote villages and even large towns where ISIS once held sway, those same fighters come back after dark when Iraqi forces go back to barracks. They assassinate those who dare to stand against them and with the Iraqi government,” reported Kimberly Dozier, senior national security correspondent at the Daily Beast.

“They send a message that the Iraqi control is surface deep and they remain the power to be challenged or joined.”

Abuses of Iran-backed militias 

Observers said abuses of the Iran-backed Iraqi militiamen against the country’s Arab Sunni community were not helping the war against ISIS.

“They’re doing it again,” one unidentified Western official told the Daily Beast. “You would think the whole ISIS experience would have convinced them.”

British Major-General Chris Ghika, the anti-ISIS coalition’s deputy commander, told the Daily Beast that fighters “who purport to be Shia militia groups” were “operating outside the rule of law and the control of appropriate authorities. That is something which concerns us.”

Sometimes it’s not just the actions of supposedly rogue militiamen that are encouraging divisions among countrymen but also government policies.

'Societal fractures and inequities'

Ghika acknowledged that “the societal fractures and inequities that aided the rise of ISIS are still here,” reported the Daily Beast.

Analysts warned that the country remained under the threat of renewed civil war.

“The government’s crackdown on Sunnis — even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants — sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace,” wrote Eric Keels, a research associate at One Earth Future Foundation, and Angela D. Nichols, assistant professor in Florida Atlantic University, in an article published by Conversation.com.

“Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.”

Maliki: Zionist conspiracy 'brought us ISIS'

Such warnings are likely to fall on the deaf ears of many Iran-backed politicians in Iraq, who would rather direct the blame of the country’s troubles to any side but their own.

Nuri al-Maliki, who was prime minister of Iraq when ISIS captured Mosul in 2014, recently blamed “Zionist Jews” of being behind the rise of the jihadists in Iraq.

“They (Zionist Jews) are exerting efforts to thwart everything we have achieved in Iraq. When they saw that we had escaped from the bottleneck, they brought us ISIS, terrorists and the sectarians,” he said.

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