Isis operations increase in Iraq as coalition withdraws

Isis terrorists have ramped up attacks in Iraq, forcing government troops to step up counter-insurgency operations just as western members of the anti-Isis coalition have pared back their presence in the country.

The jihadi group staged at least 566 attacks in Iraq in the first three months of the year and 1,669 during 2019, a 13 per cent increase from the previous year, according to security analysts Michael Knights and Alex Almeida, who track the group’s activities.

Isis is a shadow of the powerful force that conquered an area the size of Britain across Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruling about 8m people. But last month its fighters staged a new offensive, killing at least 19 members of the Iraqi security forces, according to local media reports. The terrorists are also accused of burning crops and persecuting communities in parts of western, eastern and northern Iraq.

The jihadis have exploited a partial drawdown of the international anti-Isis coalition, analysts said, while tensions between the US and Iran, disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and political paralysis in Baghdad, have also combined to provide an opportunity for the insurgents to regroup.

Thousands of foreign military personnel, including soldiers from the UK, France and Canada, left Iraq this year after coronavirus concerns halted the military training programmes they staffed. There are no firm plans for those troops to return, said Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesperson for the US-led military coalition.

About 800 American soldiers have been sent home from the US-led anti-Isis coalition since the start of the year © Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP

In total there are now fewer than 10,000 coalition troops inside Iraq, of which about 5,200 are American, Col Caggins said. About 800 American troops have been permanently sent home, he added, while six military bases have been transferred to Iraqi control.

The coalition insists it is downsizing because the threat from Isis has reduced. The top US official on Syria estimated in January that Isis retained between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, though some observers believe their numbers to be fewer.

Isis no longer controls territory and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died in October when American soldiers raided his hide-out in northern Syria. President Donald Trump had said Baghdadi’s capture or killing was his administration’s top national security priority, and lauded his death as leaving the world “a much safer place”.

But the recent uptick in violence, shows the group is not defeated. In a recording circulated on an Isis social media channel last month, Isis spokesperson Abu Hamzah al-Qurayshi said the jihadis had increased attacks “after your American masters began withdrawing their forces from Iraq”.

In response, Iraqi security forces had sought “to blunt any resurgence” by conducting raids and other offensive operations, Col Caggins said. May’s attacks prompted Iraqi security forces to bring forward a large ground operation against militants in the mountainous terrain of northern Iraq, he said.

Yehia Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi ministry of defence, insisted Iraq could handle Isis without international soldiers on the ground. “We foiled the so-called Battle of Ramadan by arresting [Isis] leaders and [gathering] information,” he said.

But Hussein Allawi, an adviser to Iraq’s counter-terrorism service, said foreign military support remained critical. “Iraqi security forces don’t have the experience to protect the land and the people in the liberated zones,” he said. As well as advising and training Iraqi soldiers, the US-led coalition has spent $5bn equipping Iraqi troops since 2014.

Members of an Iraqi militia carry the coffin of a fighter killed in an Isis attack on a unit near the town of Najaf in May © Haidar Hamdani/AFP

Two senior Isis leaders were killed in Syria in a special operation by the coalition forces last month. But in general the US-led alliance has been cutting personnel and leaving Iraqi bases, while continuing to provide air support from other facilities in the region.

Col Caggins said the departure of US troops had been accelerated by the violent stand-off between Washington and Iraq’s neighbour Iran, which had also slowed “the pace of [US] operations” at the start of the year. Repeated rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing US troops by Iran-backed Iraqi militias had forced the coalition “to focus on protecting ourselves”, he said.

The US assassination of Iran’s top foreign commander, Qassem Soleimani, on Iraqi soil in January, galvanised pro-Tehran Iraqi lawmakers to vote for the expulsion of foreign forces, casting doubt on the coalition’s future in Iraq.

After months without a functioning government, Iraq’s new prime minister, former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, will lead Baghdad’s negotiating team in talks with Washington this month, as the countries discuss the US troop presence and seek to recover their strained relationship.