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Is 'IS' making a comeback in Iraq?

Judit Neurink Irbil/Mosul
November 21, 2018

The Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq says that IS is rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The organization is regrouping, filling the void left by its quarreling adversaries. Judit Neurink reports from Irbil and Mosul.

A street in Mosul
Image: DW/Judit Neurink

A car bomb kills five in the Iraqi town of Tikrit. Iraqi troops call in air strikes on "Islamic State" (IS) tunnels in the Badush mountains. Four people are killed in the first deadly bombing in western Mosul since the city was liberated over a year ago. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces say they have arrested 52 terror suspects in Mosul, including senior IS members. Three IS hideouts are destroyed, and 10 militants are killed in Iraqi airstrikes on Diyala and Salahuddin provinces.

These are just a few examples of recent attacks carried out by or against the group. The declaration that IS was totally defeated in Iraq made by then Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi in December 2017 "was a lie," says Kurdish Major General Aziz Weysi Bani of the Zeravani forces.

These Kurdish special forces played an important role in the battle in Iraq against IS, which cost over 1,800 Kurdish fighters their lives. The Kurds teamed up with the Iraqi army and Shiite militias on the ground, with the international coalition forces providing air cover and training.

Now Weysi is raising the alarm: IS is still a major threat, even more so because the world mistakenly thinks the group has been destroyed in Iraq and will soon be finished in Syria too. "Nobody understands the threat better than we do," he told DW, citing experience and trustworthy intelligence.

Read more'Islamic State' left more than 200 mass graves in Iraq

IS thrives on political vacuum

A Kurdish general in his office in Irbil
General Weysi says IS is exploiting the political vacuum in northern IraqImage: DW/Judit Neurink

In his headquarters in a corner of the airport in Kurdistan's capital Irbil, Weysi points out that IS — or Daesh as locals call it — thrived on the political conflicts inside Iraq and continues to do so. Iraq's disillusioned Sunni minority feels let down by the Iraqi government, which is offering very little help in rebuilding their cities. After the initial euphoria that followed liberation, they are now dissatisfied with the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militias that guard their areas, with kidnapping, extortion and insecurity part of their lives once more.

When the Iraqi army seized the disputed areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, but long under Kurdish control, in October 2017, Shiite militias were put in charge of securing the territories.

"We don't trust them, and they don't trust us enough to focus on Daesh," the general says about the militias. "And Daesh is exploiting the space, the vacuum. They have many tunnels to hide in, as there are many places the Iraqi army does not control, and has never even visited."

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In his office, Weysi elaborates on what a group like IS needs to survive: money, ideology, executives and leadership. Money, the group earned from oil sales. The ideology is also still there among conservative Sunnis, he says. Many foreigners and former Iraqi military and intelligence officers are still fighting with the group in their last pockets in Syria, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has still not been found. "There still are some 3,000 IS soldiers left. Many will come from Syria to Iraq when they lose ground there. In 2014, they only needed 500 men to take Mosul."

Read moreIraqis wonder what will follow 'Islamic State' in Mosul

Mosul is still the prize for IS

A market in western Mosul
Mosul's residents are trying to rebuild their lives, but the threat of IS returning is a constant source of fearImage: DW/Judit Neurink

Fear is also spreading among Mosul's population, many of whom survived three years of occupation by the terror group. While they were thankful when the Iraqi military liberated their city, they no longer feel that the army and Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militias are guaranteeing their safety. A Mosul policeman admitted anonymously that his colleagues know there are still IS activists in the city, but without complaints or proof of affiliation, they can do nothing.

The fear heightened when a bomb exploded near the popular Abu Layla restaurant in western Mosul in early November, killing four and wounding 11. "Daesh is trying to show us they are here," says Major General Jasim Mohammed, the second-in-command of the Nineveh Operations Command that coordinates the military forces in the Mosul area. "Because we killed 15 of them a couple of days earlier."

But he does not think the bomb proves IS is a real threat. "In Mosul, Daesh is over. All that's left of them are a few sleeper cells we are trying to root out," he told DW.

Read more'Islamic State' sleeper cells spread fear in Iraq's Hawija

Most importantly, he says, IS can no longer count on the support of the people in Mosul, who helped them take over the city in 2014. "People had the worst three years of their lives. They will never do the same thing again. Many people provide us with information now. Daesh is just trying to scare them."

However, Mosul, which was the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate, is still important for the group. Outside the command center, which was formerly a palace of Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, Mohammed's superior, Major General Najim al-Jobori, is waiting for a convoy to take him into the city. "I told you before, Mosul is the prize. They will want it back," he told DW. At the same time, he tries to convince the civilians they are safe by joining them in markets, on the streets, and — today — at a funeral.

Karte Irak EN

IS could return with a vengeance

The Kurdish Peshmerga leaders also warn that IS is back, and international observers say the group still poses a global threat. They may be weakened, General Weysi admits, but "[the group] is getting stronger again, learning from its mistakes, and coming back with different tactics."

Read moreIraq's Mosul celebrates cultural comeback

Ever since the liberation of Mosul, there have been warnings that IS 2.0 could rise from the ashes of its pre-incarnation. But the Iraqi government is in denial, Weysi says. "They cannot lose face. And they continue to deny the evidence because they want to get rid of the Americans."

He says that the Kurds are ready to fight the Shiite militias over the territories, but would prefer to focus on IS. To that end he's calling on the European Union to step in and help reunite the anti-IS forces. "I hope Europe will listen, because it is more of a target for Daesh than the US. And Daesh is patient. They choose their battles. They might stay inactive in Europe for a while, but when they are back in force here, they will be back in Europe too."

Mosul: Deadly legacy of the 'Islamic State'