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Iraq must act quickly to halt re-emergence of ISIS

The bombing last week in Mosul was a stark reminder that ISIS is still around. On Thursday, a car bomb apparently targeting a popular restaurant killed and injured many residents. The attack reminded Mosul’s residents of the dark days when ISIS ruled the now nearly destroyed city for three years.

Late last month there was another deadly attack, believed by Iraqi officials to have been carried out by ISIS. The bombing at a market in the town of Qayyarah, near Mosul, killed at least six people, including two Iraqi soldiers, and injured dozens. In reaction to the attack, Hassan Karim Al-Kaabi, deputy speaker in the Iraqi parliament, said, “Beware, beware of complacency and laxity in the fight against ISIS and terrorist sleeper cells. Terror today tries to cause and spread chaos and terror in the country again, especially in our dear Mosul.”

In August, an authoritative report by the Pentagon and another by the UN documented the fact that ISIS is back with a massive number of fighters. It probably never disappeared, despite euphoric reports coming out of Iraq and Syria as the Global Coalition Against ISIS and its local allies managed to wrest most the areas it controlled from its grasp, including the fall of Raqqa, its “capital,” in October 2017.

According to these two reports, ISIS now has 20,000-30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. This includes foreigners as well as locals. According to the US report, ISIS has about 14,000 fighters in Syria and 17,000 in Iraq. Its local and international networks are still functioning, albeit at a reduced level. According to these reports, ISIS still has committed supporters all over the world and can secure weapons and other material support in many weakly-governed spaces.

There was another reminder this month of the frightening scale of ISIS brutality over the past year. On Nov. 5, the UN issued a detailed report on the gruesome discovery of hundreds of mass graves in the areas previously controlled by ISIS in Iraq. It documented about 200 such graves, containing some 12,000 bodies, found in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin. In addition, 28 mass graves were found in Anbar province that contained about 1,250 bodies. The UN believes that the graves date from the 2014-2017 period, when those areas were under ISIS control.

The grisly discovery was a reminder of ISIS brutality, which included rape, decapitation, burnings, and mass executions of prisoners and civilians alike.

The recent incidents and the authoritative reports demonstrate that, unfortunately, ISIS’s days are not completely behind us; notwithstanding the real wins garnered by the coalition against the terrorist group.

Despite these facts, complacency is palpable. Among some national and international officials, a fatigue is setting in with exaggerated “mission accomplished” claims. In recent discussions with officials and with aid agencies, one senses a lack of urgency for stabilizing the areas once controlled by ISIS to prevent a resurgence of the group.

Ahmed Madloul Al-Jarba, a member of parliament from Mosul, blamed infighting, corruption and conflicts of interest between and within the military and the Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS), most of whose members are from outside the region. He called for the recruitment of 15,000 additional local police members and the withdrawal afterwards of both the military and IMIS from Mosul and other cities.

Ahmed Al-Jubouri, another member of parliament representing Mosul, and others also expressed their misgivings about giving the IMIS a key role in keeping the peace in the area post-ISIS, because some are seen by the locals as sectarian or hostile to their interests. Instead, they urge that local police forces be strengthened and given greater security responsibilities.

There is no doubt that a greater police presence would help check the regrowth of ISIS and similar terrorist groups, but what is also needed is a speedy economic recovery in the areas liberated from ISIS. However, the slow stabilization and reconstruction of those areas means that basic services are not being restored fast enough and internally displaced people are not returning to their homes in large numbers. The longer chaos reigns in those areas, the more likely it is ISIS will regroup and Iran and its affiliated sectarian militias will move in to fill the vacuum.

Now that Iraq has chosen its top leadership — the president, speaker of parliament and, especially, the prime minister — there is no reason for delay or waiting until all cabinet posts are filled, even though that would help in speeding up the process of recovery.

The international community could help to restore optimism and faith by starting to disburse the aid and investments promised at the Kuwait conference in February 2018.

Through a candid and robust engagement between Iraq and its partners, the process of recovery could be accelerated to deprive ISIS of the fertile ground it still enjoys in parts of Iraq.

The fact that Iraq is now filling many vacancies in key ministries and also in its diplomatic corps helps. A new Iraqi ambassador was posted in Saudi Arabia recently, which should help the dialogue between the two neighbors. Similarly, meetings have been held between Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council. But what would make a real difference would be concrete improvements in the livelihoods of ordinary Iraqis, especially in the “ungoverned spaces” released from ISIS’s clutches but that have yet to return to normalcy.

 

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