In Much of Iraq, ISIS Still Rules the Night
ISIS fighters come back after dark. In many towns Iraqi government control is surface-deep, and ISIS remains the power to be challenged, or joined.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
BAGHDAD—Buzz and bustle has returned to the Iraqi capital as a million-plus visitors cram the international book fair, with whole families buying books by the armload, a sign of recovery of Iraq’s reputation as a center for literature and learning, instead of ISIS and car bombs.
Young men sporting multi-colored mohawks rap out beat poetry to flute accompaniment near the historic Qishla clock tower, with a crowd of mostly men nodding in time to the music and smiling at the tale of a soldier who left his love for the front lines only to find that his brother married her in his absence.
And traffic crawls at a near standstill as cars drop off whole families at the glittering but heavily guarded multi-storied Babylon Mall, where a neon-lit fountain beckons visitors to have coffee and shop in peace behind an artfully disguised blast wall.
This is the shiny, happy surface of the post-ISIS campaign that Iraqi, Kurdish and foreign officials tell me is, in fact, painfully fragile, threatened at any moment to be literally blown away.
Case in point, when a massive thunderclap went off as I waited for a plane in Baghdad Airport, the Iraqis around me jumped up in a panic and rushed to the window to see if they could spot the telltale curling smoke of a car bomb.
And in Iraq’s remote villages and even large towns where ISIS once held sway, those same fighters come back after dark when Iraqi forces go back to barracks. They assassinate those who dared to stand against them and with the Iraqi government. They send a message that the Iraqi control is surface-deep, and they remain the power to be challenged, or joined.
“The physical territory of the so-called caliphate will be finished, probably sometime this month, inshallah,” Joey Hood, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Mission in Iraq told a crowd of Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and foreign leaders, along with diplomats and various think tank experts, at the first-ever Rafidain Center for Dialogue Forum in Baghdad’s Rasheed Hotel. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have sleeper cells, that they don’t have … financial networks. They do. They may be just as strong now as they were in 2013.”
That grim assessment is shared by Kurdish intelligence, watching with dismay as the hard-won territory their Peshmerga forces helped Iraqi troops claw back in Iraq’s northern provinces morphs to a low-level insurgency.
“The ISIS ideology and the root causes that led to its rise still exist,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of Kurdistan’s Regional Security Council and likely the next Kurdish prime minister. He was busy prepping for the upcoming Munich Security Conference, another chance to impress upon members of the anti-ISIS coalition that the fight hasn’t ended, just changed from open warfare to what he describes as an “intelligence-led fight,” with the continuing aggression fed by the economic malaise, corruption and the bitter sectarian rifts that Iraq has aplenty.
“They’re doing it again,” one Western official said of the abuses by the Iraqi irregulars, some under the control of powerful pro-Iranian political parties. “You would think the whole ISIS experience would have convinced them.” The official said new Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi gets it, but the sprawling political enterprise he sits atop, not so much.
The Shiite irregular forces who helped win back this semi-peace, driving the so-called Islamic State underground, are also reverting back to type, I’m told by Iraqi, western and Kurdish officials. The Popular Mobilization Forces are refusing to leave some of the Sunni or Christian areas they liberated, instead appointing themselves the local authority that hands out reconstruction contracts, or more brutally sets up checkpoints to terrorize locals or shake them down.
Iraqi officials insist those are rogue groups that are breaking the laws imposed by the Iraqi national security advisor they answer to after a 2016 ruling made them part of the country’s official security force. A series of raids this week by Iraqi special units in Baghdad were aimed at shutting down a number of these pretenders — images splashed on Iraqi television meant to reassure the country’s Sunni population that the government is getting these exploitative thugs under control.
But the abuses continue outside the capital, with a traumatized population battered by up to a 100 incidents a month in more than a year of ISIS reprisal and intimidation, according to the Kurdish National Security Council.
That’s answered in turn by Shiite armed groups, who may or may not be under the umbrella of the government, stepping up practices sure to drive parts of that battered population back into the arms of ISIS.
The coalition here to fight ISIS sees the abuse by these “groups who purport to be Shia militia groups,” according to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition deputy commander, British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika.
“It is fair to say that some are operating outside the rule of law, and the control of appropriate authorities. That is something which concerns us,” he said.
“They are supporting people whose views do not necessarily align with the government's on the stabilization of the country,” he told me diplomatically over a cup of Earl Grey tea inside Iraq’s Green Zone, which has just recently been opened, optimistically, to Iraqi traffic from 5:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. every day. The aim is to relieve Baghdad’s notorious traffic jams, but the prospect terrifies private security firms who try to keep the foreign and Iraqi official denizens of the area safe.
Ghika was here in 2014 when ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, and rolled to the outskirts of Baghdad. So he relishes being here at the “end” of the campaign to retake all that territory, but he acknowledges that the societal fractures and inequities that aided the rise of ISIS are still here.
“These are long-term issues which need long-term support,” he told me, the most careful, antiseptic version of what I hear from other military folks, summed up by a recurrent mixed metaphor: Don’t leave these people high and dry again, or things will go to hell in a hand basket.
And then there are the refugee camps: 1.2 million people internally displaced, some unable to go home because there is nothing to go to, some unwilling because their neighbors who joined ISIS are living openly with impunity, and the roughly 200,000 outcast suspected ISIS fighters and families, who are welcome nowhere, so are being held in what amount to large internment camps around the country.
“Thousands of families with alleged links to ISIS are exiled, their birthrights reduced to being names on militias’ wanted lists, their dignity violated in irreversible ways,” writes Kurdish intelligence official Aziz Ahmad, doing an end-run around the Trump-whelmed U.S. media to try to reach the American public via the New York Review of Books. “Rather than address this deep residue of fears and feelings of injustice felt by many, Iraq has foolishly declared the Islamic State defeated, as though its threat were now confined to the country’s past.”
Diplomats and aid officials tell Iraqi officials they must find a solution for this last group—a way to reintegrate them back into society so they don’t become the core of ISIS 3.0. The Iraqi politicians’ response: what’s the upside for spending our limited resources on the people who nearly drove this country to the brink, when we can’t turn the water on in Basra or the lights on in Anbar?
The country seems more in the mood for revenge than reconciliation. In the overwhelmed courts, hearsay seems to be enough to convict suspect Sunnis.
Iraqi President Barham Salih told me he’d set up a working group to examine each one of those cases, to make sure they meet the Iraqi judicial system’s burden of proof before he personally signs their death warrants as per the duties of his office. The delay that has imposed in carrying out the sentence is not popular with some members of Iraq’s parliament, with voters wanting to see swift punishment.
The U.N. body to help the overwhelmed Iraqi justice system has only just started its mission of evidence collection to help Iraq prosecute war crimes like ethnic cleansing. But with each day, that evidence is a bit harder to find as memories twist and fade and the guilty find a way to escape, or to intimidate their past victims into silence.
ISIS leaders saw its territorial demise coming long before U.S. and Iraqi coalition forces hoped for it, and they planned accordingly. Right now in neighboring Syria, while we see the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces closing in on the remnants in ISIS’ last stronghold of Baghouz, and ISIS families are fleeing it, many of the fighters themselves already have left.
When they were surrounded in places like the Iraqi towns of Tel Afar, Hawija and Ba’aj, they melted into the population to fight another day instead of fighting to the death. Two Kurdish intelligence officials pointed out that those cities, with 1,000 or more fighters each, all fell in a matter of days: a sign of a tactical retreat, rather than strategic defeat.
That’s why most Iraqi officials I spoke to are working hard to placate a population, and more importantly, a parliament furious over President Donald Trump’s offhand comments that he’d be keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to “watch Iran”—seemingly forgetful of the fact that there’s a sovereign country here he’d have to consult first.
Clean-up duty after Trump’s perhaps overly honest remarks fell to U.S. chargé d’affaires Hood, speaking just a couple of days later at the Baghdad forum to an alternately bemused and indignant Iraqi audience. He read out loud parts of the 2008 Bush-era legal agreement between the two countries, which still applies.
“The United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea or air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries nor seek permanent bases nor a permanent military presence,” he said.
Ghika, in his interview, had also added forcefully, “I don’t watch Iran. We are a de-ISIS mission.”
Less reassuringly, though, Hood said it was always possible Trump could change his mind. Hood told me afterward that he hoped Iraq’s parliament wouldn’t approve a pending measure to expel U.S. troops, because the last time the U.S. military left, in 2011, ISIS emerged and threatened to take Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders are making no such rhetorical missteps. Iraqi and western officials tell me Tehran’s overreach comes in other ways: dumping cheap pharmaceuticals and produce onto Iraqi markets to weaken the economy; putting politicians and clerics on their payroll; digging at the foundation of Iraqi independence to leave the government off balance and easier to sway.
Oh, and just to send a message to the Iraqis, to the Americans and to anyone else about how deep its reach goes into this country, just a few months back Tehran lobbed missiles several hundred miles in a precision strike that killed roughly a dozen Iranian Kurdish dissidents just inside Iraqi territory. Iran’s state television even bragged about it, the message being, “We can do this to you, too, at any time.”
One senior Iraqi government advisor lamented his country’s corrupt politicians who hand out jobs to family or party members, religious leaders who preach piety and frugality while sporting expensive robes and driving fancy cars, and businessmen who run ponzi schemes to cheat their neighbors, in a “last day at the fun fair” desperation to get what they can out of Iraq before getting out.
He’d heard of at least three different incidents where up-and-coming so-called entrepreneurs had talked other businessmen into investing millions, only to flee Iraq with the cash, leaving the would-be investors conned, bitter and with little to invest just as the new prime minister is talking up his plan to jumpstart the private sector.
That’s a tough proposition in any climate, made worse by the Iraqi post-socialist mind-set, where most in the country expect the government to care for them and, in many cases, pay them from cradle to grave.
Many of the ordinary Iraqis I met complained to me that their government wasn’t doing enough: from a craftsman making models of old Baghdad streets telling me they weren’t supporting his artwork; to a man who stopped me and pressed into my hand a carefully penned letter in English complaining that he wasn’t getting his fair share of government compensation to his family for his brother’s execution decades earlier under Saddam.
Iraqis, especially the young, are losing hope in their leaders and losing their faith in their fellow man, the Iraqi adviser said. Like most of the top officials, he wouldn’t be moving his family back from abroad, at least not yet.
It’s heartbreaking. This is a great metropolis in a great country with countless natural advantages and a population that is both warm and generous, yet it is a country that continues to eat itself from within.