For the first time since the defeat of Da’ish, church bells tolled in northern Iraq last week to celebrate Easter. Palm Sunday saw large crowds turn out in Bakhdida district in a jubilant show of resilience that was reminiscent of the Easter processions held on the same streets before the northern offensive by Da’ish in 2014 and the subsequent occupation of much of Iraq’s north. The recuperation of communities decimated by the events of the last few years is under way and whilst the challenges facing the state are clear, the dauntingly bleak future many predicted for Iraq now seems rather vacuous. The latest numbers by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicate a staggering 3,573,060 refugees have returned to their areas of origin following liberation at the hands of the Iraqi military.
Baghdad continues to exhibit truly remarkable improvements in terms of security, with no major bombings in the capital since the Al-Tayaran Square bombing in January. Hundreds of streets have been reopened lately, many of them closed to the public since the invasion in 2003, in addition to tens of thousands of blast walls being removed from the streets and nearly 1,800 checkpoints withdrawn. The city has also seen a decrease in small-scale IED and gun attacks, until recently a normal part of daily life in the capital.
The dramatic decrease in terrorism witnessed by Baghdad must be attributed to the outstanding efforts of the Iraqi intelligence apparatus and their clandestine crusade against Da’ish sleeper cells within the city and its peripheries. Numerous terror attacks are foiled on a monthly basis in Baghdad and the country’s south through the toil of Iraq’s intelligence community, which has grown to become one of the most adept forces of its kind at combatting terrorism in the Middle East. A recent feel-good coup for intelligence units was the rescuing of a Yezidi girl last week held captive in the Sha’ab area of Baghdad by four Da’ish militants from Ninawa who had been hiding in the capital.
However, not all Iraqi regions are enjoying the current spell of relative peace as much as Baghdad. Kirkuk has seen its fair share of turbulence over the last few months as Da’ish remnants and Kurdish separatists have tried to gain footholds across the province in order to undermine security in the area. Da’ish remnants and Kurdish security forces had an unspoken “live and let live” agreement around the province’s countryside. As long as the city and nearby oilfields were never endangered by the militants, they would face no meaningful offensives against their many strongholds in southwestern Kirkuk and the Himreen mountainous region. In addition to this détente, the Kurds turned a blind eye to Da’ish oil smuggling operations.
The harmony was upended last year when Iraqi forces retook the province, its namesake city and the major oilfields in Kirkuk. Since then, Iraqi forces have struggled to contain a fledgling Da’ish insurgency supplemented by obscure Kurdish separatist factions aiming to destabilize security in order to erode confidence in the Iraqi security forces that are now in control.
Federal Police units have launched weekly operations to scour Kirkuk’s countryside for Da’ish militants, specifically concentrating on Hawijah and its neighbouring towns and villages, a historic Da’ish bastion. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces, including Hashd Al-Sha’abi (PMUs) units began a major operation south of Kirkuk to hunt down Da’ish remnants near Tuz Khurmato who had been engaged in terror and criminal activities in the area. Negotiations are purportedly under way to allow a set number of Kurdish security forces back into Kirkuk to help secure the city, especially Kurdish neighbourhoods. However, a stumbling block might turn out to be the fact that such forces will probably only be permitted to return to the city under federal control, a notion that the Kurdish regional government has seemed averse to.
A series of deadly Da’ish attacks along the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway have grabbed the headlines in recent weeks with terrorists ambushing passing vehicles and setting up fake checkpoints in order to arrest members of the security forces who routinely travel south during their leave periods. A recent Da’ish propaganda release showed the kidnapping at one such checkpoint and subsequent execution of at least 10 soldiers. A recent attack also killed and wounded upwards of 20 civilians when militants opened fire on a bus carrying Shi’a civilians on their way to a religious pilgrimage. These attacks have prompted an outcry from Iraqis that has pushed officials to heighten security along large stretches of the road. On Saturday, it was announced that Saraya Al-Salam, the paramilitary group led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, would be deployed along the highway to tackle the rise in Da’ish activity. These attacks are a further indication by Da’ish that it will be prioritising a new insurgency over any meaningful attempts to reclaim territory for the foreseeable future.
Anbar and Diyala
The situation in Iraq’s Diyala and Anbar provinces continues to be relatively quiet yet disturbingly tense. Da’ish has made no major moves in the country’s eastern and western regions yet nevertheless a steady stream of small-scale attacks risk turning into a deluge if left unchecked. Regular intelligence reports suggest the western Anbar desert is witnessing a significant Da’ish regrouping effort, most notably in the Wadi Houran area, a place many have referred to in the past as the birthplace of Da’ish. Iraqi army and allied tribal groups have stepped their efforts to intercept Da’ish movements in western Anbar however only a direct confrontation with Da’ish deep inside the desert will suffice in truly clipping their wings.
Diyala province has also recently witnessed several large-scale operations to track down and neutralise Da’ish terror cells and these efforts are continuing on a constant basis. A more pragmatic approach is needed though, one that builds better intelligence networks among the farming communities of the province in order to allow the Iraqi military to locate the exact orchards and forests being used as training bases and launching pads by Da’ish as they try to terrorise villages and towns north of the provincial capital Ba’qubah. Earlier in the week, a heavy Da’ish assault on Albu Mar’ie, a village 60km north of Ba’qubah comprised of just seven houses, ended in humiliation as the village’s residents, including women, picked up their arms and managed to successfully hold back the attackers for an hour until the Iraqi military arrived. This incident has greatly elevated morale among the cluster of villages in the area, which are under regular attack by Da’ish. It probably did not have the same effect on the militants.
Meanwhile, the city of Mosul is experiencing its first stretch of peace in over a decade. Iraqi security forces have been surprisingly successful in recent months in their objective to hunt down the hundreds, if not thousands, of Da’ish terrorists and collaborators who decided to flee the liberation battles to fight another day. More than 120 suspected Da’ish militants have been arrested in the city within the last fortnight.
Still, Mosul’s mayor recently spoke about the police’s concern as they face a new “phenomenon” – dead bodies turning up on the streets overnight. This latest crime-wave has been attributed to Da’ish elements trying to survive by turning to criminal activities. But those who have kept a close eye on Mosul since the days of the occupation will recognise that Al-Qaeda in Iraq had an almost mafia-like grip on the city via protection rackets and kidnappings. Civilians and businesspeople that defied them usually ended up being identified by their loved ones in morgues. This might be another indication that Da’ish is going back to the ways of its predecessors.
That being said, Mosul has seen a substantial improvement in its security with no major terrorist attacks of any sort for months. If this streak continues then it will hopefully provide NGOs and international companies with enough reassurance to begin helping the Iraqi government with much needed assistance in rebuilding the city.
Ninawa province has not been overly relaxed though, not with growing threats by Turkey’s leadership to invade northwestern Iraq for the purpose of expelling PKK fighters, who it deems to be terrorists, from Sinjar and the border region with Syria. The population of Sinjar does not share the Turkish viewpoint regarding the PKK. On Sunday, as the final batch of fighters left Sinjar, the Yezidi community lined the streets to hug and kiss the men and women who helped to rescue them from Da’ish. The PKK played a major role in Sinjar’s liberation in late 2015 and has protected the city from Da’ish threats since then. But rather than risk Turkish forces igniting another major conflict in the region, approximately 500 fighters began to withdraw from the 23rd of March.
Iraqi armed forces will now assume control of the district and will work closely with Yezidi paramilitary groups to maintain security. Turkish president Erdogan has continued to aggressively express his country’s readiness to launch operations in the area while absurdly maintaining that such actions would be coordinated with the Iraqi government, which for its part has categorically rejected any Turkish interference of any kind.
All in all, Iraq is firmly on track to rehabilitate its security environment and continue to rebuild its military strength. However, robust contingency plans must be put in place to tackle the growing threat of a Da’ish insurgency, particularly in western Anbar and Kirkuk and a genuine push for alleviating post-referendum tensions must take place between Baghdad and Erbil as soon as possible so that a comprehensive security framework can be put in place for Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
Haidar Sumeri is a Middle East observer, mainly focusing on Iraq’s war on terrorism.