GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Iraq is witnessing the biggest resurgence by the so-called Islamic State since the government officially declared victory over the organization on Dec. 7, 2017.
Beginning over the weekend, ISIS launched coordinated attacks on pro-Iranian militiamen in nearly two dozen areas across both the Sunni north and Shi’a south of the country. According to statistics cited by Iraqi government and pro-Iranian sources, 30 members of the Iraq security forces were killed and several dozen wounded. The real numbers are likely higher.
The ISIS blitz is taking advantage of Iraq’s coronavirus lockdown, in effect since March 22, which has provided the jihadist group with relative freedom to move across large swaths of the countryside.
“Coronavirus has seriously disrupted operations by Iraq’s army and security forces, who instead of going after ISIS cells with disproportionate force, as usual, have since the outbreak been forced to break up into small cell-like groups themselves in order to prevent the spread of the virus within their ranks,” says Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Many soldiers eager to spend time with families on permanent lockdown in urban areas as the Muslim world begins the holy month of Ramadan have simply failed to show up for duty. The result is a sparsely populated battlefield where ISIS holds distinct advantages. Veteran ISIS leaders with years of guerrilla warfare experience have emerged to take advantage of the hiatus in Iraqi army activity.
“ISIS are the ultimate doomsday preppers, and they’ve been social distancing for years,” Knights added. “You look at these hundreds, if not thousands of hide sites the group has established in rural areas, each outfitted with telecommunications networks, gasoline and fuel, electricity generators, bulk explosives and IED components. This is the backbone of an insurgency that was laid a long time ago.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Iraqi Security Forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units—mostly Shi’a paramilitary units, many of which possess strong, direct ties to Iran—had fanned out across Iraq, launched attacks on ISIS hideouts and arresting the group’s leaders in remote desert regions near the Turkish, Syrian, and Saudi borders.
In one instance in Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi, tribal PMF forces identified and chased down a group of suicide bombers who took refuge in a mosque. The suicide vests detonated, reducing the mosque and its environs to rubble. Amid the fighting and confusion, ISIS managed to kidnap an Iraqi intelligence agent, who was taken to the desert west of Mosul. He was paraded before the group’s cameras, then executed on the spot in a video reminiscent of ISIS propaganda in years past.
Civilians have not been spared in the group’s campaign. As punishment against Sunnis who failed to pledge allegiance to the group, locals in Samarra awoke Sunday find swaths of their farmland on fire. The group also destroyed six power lines across northeastern Iraq, some of which connect the country’s grid to its primary electricity source in Iran, leaving wide swaths of the population without power as Iraqis approach summer and an assured wave of blistering heat.
“We’re looking at ISIS’ first real Ramadan offensive in half a decade,” says Knights. “Though the group is still a shadow of itself, it’s shown sustained growth over the last year that’s being let loose now”.
THE U.S. AND THE COALITION
ISIS also has been able to exploit a significant scaling back in recent weeks of the U.S. military footprint across strategic parts of Iraq, and in particular in the Sunni provinces of Kirkuk, Ninewah and Anbar, where the group operates most frequently and recruits fighters.
The withdrawal from five military bases began in mid-March as an attempt by the United States to reduce tensions with Iran following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and a string of clashes between Shi’a militias and U.S.-allied forces at the American bases in Taji and Besmaya that led to the death of 27 U.S., European, and Iraqi fighters.
While American troops taken out of those areas were redeployed to more fortified facilities at the al-Assad and Harir bases, numerous European countries elected to remove their troops from the country altogether, citing fears of the spread of coronavirus among their troops as a pretext.
The result has been a significant reduction in intelligence capabilities for Iraqi security forces across the country at a time when ISIS has been working to rebuild capacity and mobilize its ranks.
“The attacks were the predictable outcome of the withdrawal of coalition forces that provided extensive intelligence and reconnaissance support to the Iraqi military, as well as help with planning strike operations,” according to Jack Watling, Research Fellow of Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London.
“This allowed the Iraqi security forces to attack ISIS at its hideouts, seize its arms caches, and force the group’s fighters to focus on concealing themselves rather than plan attacks. With the reduction in intelligence and surveillance Iraqi forces have not been able to be as proactive, and so the fight has come once again to Iraqi towns.”
While U.S. troops will continue with specialized training of counterterrorism forces from the relative safety of rear bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere, it is unclear how much anti-ISIS coalition troops will be able to help Iraq’s current efforts to push back against the newly resurgent jihadist threat.
“Any U.S. assistance that occurs will take place from farther back in the conflict zone,” says Knights. “U.S. troops are no longer present at the forward provincial level bases, and this is really bad.” They’ve gotten locked down in a defensive posture, “making our actions in Iraq more like that of the Yemen model, i.e., launching raids and strikes from long distances rather than guiding and directly engaging.”
In this scenario, certain players in Iraq and around the region stand to gain if they can manage to fill this void, foremost among them Iran and its proxies.
All this could not have come at a worse time for Iraq, whose political and economic prospects already looked deathly grim. The pandemic has left the country’s dilapidated medical institutions hollowed out and overstretched, while further crippling an economy in desperate condition.
For Iraq, whose budget depends on oil revenues for 90 percent of its funding, the massive crash in crude prices since worldwide lockdowns began will render the state unable to meet its financial obligations going forward, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
In a country that relies on the division of spoils and state-sponsored patronage among competing political blocs in order to build consensus and ensure stability, the near total drying up of revenue is bound to spell chaos as rivals compete over smaller and smaller scraps and diminishing returns.
“Analyses performed in early April that assumed an international price of $30 per barrel would see Iraqi state revenues decrease 70 percent year on year compared to 2019”, according to Ali al-Saffar, an analyst at the International Energy Agency. “However now that we have the numbers from April, we see that oil in Iraq was actually traded at a much lower rate, at $13.80 per barrel. That said, we no longer have to speculate: in April Iraq’s government brought in only $1.4 billion in revenue. ... Meanwhile, monthly expenditures ran $6 billion, leaving a $4.6 billion deficit. How do you bridge that gap? How do you ensure salaries will be paid?”
For Iraq, few options exist except to dip into the country’s foreign currency reserves, estimated in April at $63 billion. But without any significant increase in oil prices, these will expire in less than a year. And these figures don’t account for the need to pay for imports, which make up the vast majority of products consumed within the country. Manufacturing and agriculture are a minuscule percentage of Iraq’s GDP.
The monumental task of managing these crises falls to Mustafa al-Khadimi, former Director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Services, who was designated prime minister in April by Iraq’s president and tasked with crafting a new cabinet for the country in response to six months of Arab-Spring-style protests that condemned widespread corruption among the country’s political elite. Hundreds died, and Iraq has been operating without a government since the December 1 resignation of former Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi.
The previous nominee to the position, Adnan al-Zurfi, appointed in March, was removed after three weeks when he failed to build a coalition among Iraq’s nearly one dozen influential political parties, running up against particularly intense opposition from powerful parties with links to armed Shi’a groups that have direct ties to Iran.
The ISIS onslaught comes as the country’s MPs have spent the last week bogged down in sensitive deliberations over the formation of a new government.
Late Wednesday night, Prime Minister Designate al-Kadhimi received a tentative vote of approval from parliament for a majority of his cabinet, but MPs failed to reach agreement on candidates for key positions such as the ministries of oil, foreign affairs, and commerce. Key blocs, such as those affiliated with former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Iraq’s long aggrieved Sunnis, were reported to have boycotted the session.
How MPs decide to proceed going forward will likely be determined by what financial incentives are extended their way in the form of state-sponsored patronage paid for by Iraq’s budget. Failure to do so may means that al-Khadimi suffers the same fate as his predecessor, al-Zurfi.
“Iraq is basically still operating on the model of an old socialist country,” says Ahmed Tabaqchali, of Asia Frontier’s Iraq Fund and senior fellow at IRIS Mid East. “Consensus among different political factions is secured through the prime minister’s distribution of state appointed positions of power in ministries and other government agencies to political leaders who run these bodies like fiefdoms with mostly no oversight. This is where corruption and embezzlement take place. Political leaders need these fiefdoms to reward their supporters and maintain their militias. Non-payment is a non-starter.”
IRAN AND THE MILITIAS
As Iraq’s economy crumbles, ISIS launches new strikes, and the U.S. watches from afar, the party best positioned to benefit from this sorry state of affairs is Iran. Whether Iraq’s leaders decide to make cuts to state salaries and other expenditures or allow the value of Iraq’s currency to crash, they will naturally look outside their borders to secure supplemental income or acquire new partners to boost their influence vis a vis their domestic rivals. And because Iran’s role in Iraq is so prominent, it tends to discourage support from the Gulf and the West, thus pushing Iraqis to rely even more heavily on it.
Because of the coronavirus, nations that might otherwise be amenable to partnering with Iraq to prop up its reserves may be too caught up with their own crises to extend any assistance. Relief from international institutions, usually contingent on austerity, runs up against the unavoidable patronage of Iraq’s political system.
Although Iran is strapped for cash itself, it may provide the only option for Iraq’s political elite to weather the crisis from the top down.
But all is not well among Iran’s closest Iraqi allies. Even before the December 2017 defeat of ISIS, cracks had begun to emerge between the competing Shi’a religious establishments of Iraq and Iran. These, in turn, sowed divisions among the Shi’a militias, and may have weakened Tehran’s grip.
Since October’s protests, many Shi’a have “begun to perceive the PMF [paramilitary units under the rubric Popular Mobilization Forces] as responsible for coercion and repression rather than as a legitimate resistance force against ISIS,” according to Inna Rudolf, a research fellow and expert on the Shi’a militias at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London.
Following the Trump administration’s assassination of both Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces, divisions between more moderate PMF factions affiliated with Iraq’s indigenous Shi’a religious establishment in Najaf and those with direct ties to the Iranian leadership in Qom began to widen.
“For years, moderate Shi’a factions whose loyalty lies primarily with the clergy in Najaf were marginalized and denied equal access to weapons and equipment by the PMF’s governing committee” says Rudolf. “After the death of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, many within these factions hoped this might change with the arrival of new leadership. However after several meetings with new PMF commanders it quickly became clear this would not be the case.”
Late last month, four factions with ties to Najaf, known as the “Shrine Brigades”—after the holy Shi’a shrine of Imam Husayn located in the city of Karbala—formally announced their defection from the broader PMF organization, electing to remain independent. The Shrine Brigades also sought to disassociate themselves from the ongoing U.S.-Iran proxy battles escalating throughout Iraq, and adopt a more neutral stance in order to avoid becoming a target.
“The religious establishment in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, has been very explicit in its opposition to armed groups taking part in politics,” according to Rudolf. “The Shrine Brigades, for the most part, have followed his lead.”