- Security forces are fighting for control in parts of Iraq and Syria
- Rivalries undermine security and play into the hands of militants
- The Islamic State launches a series of major attacks, including on prisons
- Armed forces in the region say the group will no longer pose a major threat
- Locals fear there could be a comeback as law and order collapse
JALAWLA, Iraq, February 2 (Reuters) – Yousif Ibrahim has stopped driving on the roads around his hometown of Jalawla in north-eastern Iraq at night. He fears being implicated in attacks by the Islamic State.
“The police and army don’t come to our area very often anymore. If they do, they’ll be shot at by militants,” says the 25-year-old, who earns his living from fish at a nearby market.
Nearly three years after the group lost its last enclave, Islamic State fighters are once again emerging as a deadly threat, aided by the lack of centralized control in many areas, according to a dozen security officials, local leaders and residents in 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 across much of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, launching increasingly brazen attacks in recent months.
“Daesh (Islamic State) is not as powerful as it was in 2014,” said Jabar Yawar, a senior official in the peshmerga forces in Iraq’s northern autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“Its resources are limited and there is no strong common leadership,” he told Reuters in the city of Sulaimaniya. “But as long as political disputes are not resolved, Daesh will come back.”
Some fear this may begin.
In late January, Islamic State launched one of its deadliest attacks on the Iraqi army in years, killing 11 soldiers in a town near Jalawla, security sources said.
On the same day, their militants stormed a prison in Syria controlled by a US-backed Kurdish militia to free inmates loyal to the group.
It was the Islamic State’s largest attack since its self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed in 2019. At least 200 prison inmates and militants were killed, as well as 40 Kurdish soldiers, 77 prison guards and four civilians.
Officials and residents in northern Iraq and eastern Syria blame rivalries between armed groups. When Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and US-led forces declared Islamic State defeated, they faced each other in territory it controlled.
Now Iran-backed militias are attacking US forces. Turkish forces bomb Kurdish separatists. A territorial dispute is raging between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
The tensions are undermining security and good governance, and creating the confusion from which Islamic State once thrived.
For Ibrahim, that means crossing checkpoints manned variously by Iraqi soldiers and Shiite Muslim paramilitaries to get to work in a city that was Kurdish-controlled until just a few years ago.
Remote farmland between each military post is where Islamic State militants are hiding, local officials said.
A similar pattern is playing out across the 400-mile corridor of mountains and desert through northern Iraq and into Syria, where Islamic State was once dominant.
Cities like Jalawla bear the scars of fierce fighting some five years ago – buildings reduced to rubble and riddled with bullet holes. Banners honoring slain commanders of various armed groups jostle for space in city squares.
In some parts of Iraq where the Islamic State operates, the main dispute is between the government in Baghdad and the autonomous Northern Kurdish region, which is home to vast oil reserves and strategic areas that both sides claim.
These are the areas where the deadliest jihadist attacks in Iraq have taken place in recent months. Dozens of soldiers, Kurdish militants and residents were killed in violence that local officials attributed to militants loyal to the group.
According to Yawar, Islamic State fighters are using the no man’s land between the Iraqi army, Kurdish and Shia militias 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.
Due to the lack of agreement on territorial control, there are areas that neither the Iraqi army nor Kurdish forces can penetrate to pursue, he added.
“That’s where Daesh is active,” he told Reuters by phone.
The Iraqi state’s paramilitary forces, which are allied with Iran, are in theory coordinating with the Iraqi army, but some local officials say this doesn’t always happen.
“The problem is that local commanders, the army and the paramilitaries…sometimes don’t recognize each other’s authority,” said Ahmed Zargosh, mayor of Saadia, a town in a disputed area.
“That means Islamic State militants can operate in the gaps.”
Zargosh lives outside the city he governs and says he fears assassination by Islamic State militants if he is there at night.
Syria and the borders
At the other end of the corridor of contested areas in Syria, Islamic State fighters are taking advantage of the confusion to operate in sparsely populated areas, according to some officials and analysts.
“Fighters enter villages and towns at night and are completely free to operate, loot for food, intimidate businesses and ‘extort taxes’ from local people,” said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute Think- Tank.
“They have many more local rifts, be they ethnic, political or sectarian, that they can exploit to their advantage.”
Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias hold territory west of the Euphrates River, 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 allied to Iran, Turkey, Syria and the West control different segments of land, with separate checkpoints sometimes just a few hundred yards apart.
Iran and its proxy militias are trying to retain control of the Iraqi-Syrian border crossings, which represent Tehran’s gateway to Syria and Lebanon, according to Western and Iraqi officials.
US officials have accused these militias of attacking some 2,000 American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria fighting the Islamic State. Tehran has not commented on whether Iran is involved.
Turkey, meanwhile, is launching drone strikes from bases in northern Iraq against Kurdish separatists operating on both sides of the border.
COLLAPSE OF THE CALIFATE
At the peak of its power from 2014 to 2017, the Islamic State ruled over millions of people, claiming responsibility for or inspiring attacks in dozens of cities around the world.
Their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate over a quarter of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being killed in a 2019 US special forces raid in north-west Syria as the group collapsed. Continue reading
Armed forces in northern Iraq and northeast Syria say the sheer number of groups, all enemies of Islamic State, would stifle any resurgence.
After the attack on the prison, the US-led military coalition fighting Islamic State said in a statement that the latest attacks had ultimately weakened them.
Not all municipalities are convinced of this.
“After the attack on the Syrian prison, we are afraid that Daesh might come back,” said Hussein Suleiman, a government official in the Iraqi city of Sinjar, which Islamic State overran in 2014 and where it slaughtered thousands of members of the Yazidi minority.
“Islamic State came from Syria last time. Iraqi troops and Kurdish troops were also here at the time, 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; Edited by Mike Collett-White and Samia Nakhoul
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