Islamic State strikes back, aided by power vacuum in Iraq and Syria

  • Security forces jostle for control of parts of Iraq and Syria
  • Rivalries undermine security and play into activists’ hands
  • Islamic State launches a series of major attacks, including on the prison
  • Armed forces in the region say the group will no longer be a major threat
  • Locals fear it will return as law and order crumbles

JALAWLA, Iraq, Feb 2 (Reuters) – Yousif Ibrahim no longer travels at night on the roads around his hometown of Jalawla in northeastern Iraq. He fears being caught up in attacks by the Islamic State.

“Police and army don’t come to our area much anymore. If they do, they get shot by militants,” said the 25-year-old, who sells fish for a living on a neighboring market.

Nearly three years after the group lost its last enclave, Islamic State fighters are re-emerging as a deadly threat, aided by a lack of central control in many areas, according to a dozen security officials, local leaders and residents of northern Iraq.

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Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells often operating independently have survived in parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, and in recent months, they launched more and more brazen attacks.

“Daesh (Islamic State) is no longer as powerful as it was in 2014,” said Jabar Yawar, a senior peshmerga commander in the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

“Its resources are limited and there is no strong joint leadership,” he told Reuters in the town of Sulaimaniya. “But until political differences are resolved, Daesh will return.”

Some fear this is starting to happen.

In late January, the Islamic State carried out one of its deadliest attacks against the Iraqi army in years, killing 11 soldiers in a town near Jalawla, according to security sources.

On the same day, its militants stormed a prison in Syria under the control of a US-backed Kurdish militia in a bid to free detainees loyal to the group.

It was the Islamic State’s biggest attack since the collapse of its self-declared caliphate in 2019. At least 200 inmates and militants were killed, along with 40 Kurdish soldiers, 77 prison guards and four civilians.

Officials and residents of northern Iraq and eastern Syria blame much of the blame on rivalries between armed groups. When Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and US forces declared defeat of the Islamic State, they clashed throughout the territory it had ruled.

Now Iranian-backed militias are attacking US forces. Turkish forces bomb Kurdish separatist militants. A territorial dispute is brewing between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

The tensions undermine security and good governance, causing the confusion in which the Islamic State once thrived.

For Ibrahim, that means crossing checkpoints alternately manned by Iraqi soldiers and Shiite Muslim paramilitaries on his way to work in a town that was controlled only a few years ago by the Kurds.

The isolated farmland between each military outpost is where Islamic State militants are hiding, according to local officials.

A similar pattern is unfolding in the 400-mile corridor of mountains and desert across northern Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State once held sway.

Towns like Jalawla bear the scars of heavy fighting about five years ago – buildings reduced to rubble and scarred by bullet holes. Banners honoring slain commanders of different armed groups jostle for space in city squares.

IRAQI DISPUTES

In parts of Iraq where the Islamic State operates, the main dispute is between the government in Baghdad and the autonomous region of northern Kurdistan, which is home to huge oil deposits and strategic territory claimed by both sides.

The deadliest attacks by jihadists in Iraq in recent months have taken place in these regions. Dozens of soldiers, Kurdish fighters and residents have been killed in violence that local authorities have blamed on militants loyal to the group.

According to Yawar, Islamic State fighters are using the no man’s land between Iraqi army, Kurdish and Shia militia checkpoints to regroup.

“The gaps between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga are sometimes 40 km (25 miles) wide,” he said.

Mohammed Jabouri, an Iraqi army commander in Salahuddin province, said the militants tended to operate in groups of 10 to 15 people.

A girl walks near a building destroyed in past fighting with Islamic State militants, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, February 1, 2022. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

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Due to the lack of agreement on territorial control, there are areas where neither the Iraqi army nor Kurdish forces can enter to pursue them, he added.

“This is where Daesh is active,” he told Reuters by phone.

Iran-aligned Iraqi state paramilitary forces theoretically coordinate with the Iraqi military, but some local officials say this does not always happen.

“The problem is that local commanders, the army and paramilitaries… sometimes don’t recognize each other,” said Ahmed Zargosh, mayor of Saadia, a town in a contested area.

“That means Islamic State militants can operate in the interstices.”

Zargosh lives outside the city he administers, saying he fears he could be murdered by Islamic State militants if he stays there overnight.

SYRIA AND THE BORDERS

Islamic State militants at the other end of the corridor of disputed territory, in Syria, are taking advantage of the confusion to operate in sparsely populated areas, according to some officials and analysts.

“Combatants (enter) villages and towns at night and have full freedom to operate, raid for food, intimidate businesses and extort ‘taxes’ from the local population,” said lead researcher Charles Lister. at the Middle East Institute think-Char.

“They have a lot more local fissures, whether ethnic, political, sectarian, to exploit to their advantage.”

Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militias hold territory west of the Euphrates and US-backed Kurdish forces are stationed to the east, including where the prison attack took place.

The picture on the Iraqi side of the border area is no less complex.

Soldiers and fighters aligned with Iran, Turkey, Syria and the West control different segments of land, with separate checkpoints sometimes a few hundred meters apart.

Iran and its proxy militias seek to maintain control of the Iraqi-Syrian border crossings that are Tehran’s gateway to Syria and Lebanon, according to Western and Iraqi officials.

US officials accuse these militias of attacking the approximately 2,000 US troops stationed in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State. Tehran did not specify whether Iran was involved.

Turkey, meanwhile, is launching drone strikes from bases in northern Iraq against Kurdish separatist militants operating on both sides of the border.

COLLAPSE OF THE CALIPHATE

At the height of its power from 2014 to 2017, the Islamic State ruled over millions and claimed or inspired attacks in dozens of cities around the world.

Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate over a quarter of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being killed in a raid by US special forces in northwestern Syria in 2019 as the group was falling apart. Read more

Armed forces in northern Iraq and northeast Syria say the large number of groups, all enemies of Islamic State, would crush any resurgence.

Following the assault on the prison, the US-led military coalition fighting Islamic State said in a statement that the recent attacks had ultimately weakened it.

Not all local authorities are convinced.

“After the attack on the Syrian prison, we are afraid that Daesh will come back,” said Hussein Suleiman, an official from the Iraqi town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State invaded in 2014 and where he massacred thousands of people. members of the Yazidi minority.

“The Islamic State came from Syria last time. Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces were there too, but they fled.”

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Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Ali Sultan in Jalawla and Sulaimaniya, Iraq, Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Samia Nakhoul

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