BAGHDAD—The Iraqi government declared victory against the extremist Islamic State group in Mosul this month, and that was cause for major celebration.
But the extremists are far from eradicated in Iraq. Several strongholds remain. And the battle to push the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, out of these places will be more complicated than the previous, straightforward fights have been in places like Fallujah and Tikrit.
Notably, the stalemate between Turkey and Iran in this area poses a serious political challenge for the Iraqi government in the remaining cities controlled by ISIS.
At the same time, many extremists have taken to the hills and begun to wage a classic rural guerrilla war, while some sleeper cells have been activated at the very gates of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
Today the extremists control three towns: Tal Afar, west of Mosul; Hawija, south of Kirkuk; and Al Qaim, west of Anbar. Each fight has its own complicated set of considerations, from political questions to military ones, as well as, in some cases, dangerous foreign policy ramifications.
When the Iraqi military began the fight to push ISIS out of Mosul in October last year, there was a deliberate plan to exclude the Shiite Muslim militias from the campaign. This is because the city of Mosul had a Sunni majority population and there were fears that involving the Shiite Muslim militias, who began as a volunteer force fighting the ISIS, would eventually cause problems with Mosul locals, possibly even to the extent that the local population would not support the military.
The Shiite Muslim militias in the area then began to move toward the town of Tal Afar, another ISIS stronghold. The militias fought in the suburbs around Tal Afar but were warned off entering the town by one of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey.
The Turks said they were worried that the militias would take revenge on ethnic Turkmen living in the town—there were both Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim Turkmen living in Tal Afar before the security crisis, and the Sunni Muslim Turkmen who remained, and who would have been at the militias’ mercy, were considered by many to be supporters of ISIS.
There are still Turkish troops in Camp Zilkan east of Bashiqua. Despite protestations from both local and Iraqi federal officials, the Turkish military have remained there, which means that the threat of them acting against the Shiite Muslim militias also remains. And there are ongoing concerns that the Turks might try to join in the fighting for Tal Afar.
On July 19, some of the most senior leaders of several of the Shiite Muslim militias—Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr organization; Qais al-Khazali, head of the League of the Righteous militia; and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes of Hezbollah in Iraq—met to discuss the matter. The three groups, known for having closer ties to Iran than to the Iraqi government, decided that they did wish to participate in this fight.
The apparent stalemate between Turkey and Iran in this area poses a serious political challenge for the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will need to find a diplomatic solution to resolve an international conflict that could throw the fight against ISIS off course.
“The battle for Tal Afar will be difficult because it is a political fight as well as a military one,” Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP, told NIQASH. “Really all parties should be focusing on a common enemy, the [Islamic State] group.”
One of the suggested solutions would involve different Shiite Muslim militias coming to fight in Tal Afar. These more moderate militias, including the Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade—often referred to simply as the Abbas Brigades—are known to be more loyal to the Iraqi government rather than Iran. The Abbas Brigades also helped support the Iraqi army’s ninth division in the fight for Mosul.
One of the fighters with the Abbas Brigades, Kathim al-Daraji, says this seems probable. More than 3,000 reservists have been called up and it is likely they will be fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the fight for Tal Afar, he suggests.
In the south of Kirkuk province, the town of Hawija has been dominated by the ISIS for the past three years. As yet there have been no military operations launched to push the ISIS out of Hawija, due in large part to the complicated political problems in this area between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, the Shiite Muslim militias, and the Sunni Muslim community.
Shiite Muslim factions are insisting on taking part in this battle because they wish to protect the Shiite Muslim locals living in villages around Hawija. But the Iraqi Kurdish military fear that if the Shiite Muslim fighters do take part here, they will also try and stay in the area.
Kirkuk is what is known as a disputed territory—that is, the Iraqi Kurdish believe it should be part of their nearby semi-autonomous region, but Iraqi Arabs believe it is part of Iraq proper. If the Shiite Muslim Arabs stay in the area after ISIS is expelled, this dilutes the Kurdish claim on the area.
The unhappy relationship between Baghdad and the leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish region at the moment is also an issue. This has been exacerbated by the Kurds’ intention to hold a referendum on their region’s potential independence from the rest of Iraq. Baghdad has already announced its strong opposition to the idea.
And there is another problem: The Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in this area are mostly worried that if the Iraqi Kurdish military or the Shiite Muslim militias take part in the battle, then there will unlawful acts of revenge taken on their people here.
It is highly likely that the fight to expel the ISIS from Al Qaim is a long way down the list of battles to come. Tal Afar and Hawija probably will happen first. This is because Al Qaim is located on an international border, between Iraq and Syria. Given the geography, Al Qaim is by far the most secure city for the ISIS group.
Basically, both Damascus and Baghdad would have to coordinate a campaign against ISIS here.
The Syrian government is not able to do this at the moment, and the Iraqi forces are not ready for this fight either, according to Ibrahim al-Jumaili, a senior officer retired from the Iraqi army.
In February this year the Iraqi government announced that it would start aerial bombing of the area around Al Qaim, in coordination with the Syrian government. But after just a few days the raids stopped, and no explanation was given.
“The most difficult fighting is that taking place on the border and in the large desert areas,” explains al-Jumaili, who served in Iraq’s ground forces during the Iran-Iraq war. “If the Iraqi army pushes the ISIS fighters out of Al Qaim, they will just go to Abu Kamal [the Syrian town on the other side of the border]. But then they will just come back into Iraq when they want to, because there are no Syrian troops there to stop them.”
There is also the difficult political situation in Syria to consider, with various actors engaged, including the United States and Russia. “The longer it takes to settle the Syrian problem, the longer it will take to liberate Al Qaim and the Iraqi-Syrian border area,” says al-Jumaili.
But the ISIS strategy for its remaining forces in Iraq is not limited to three towns.
The Hills of Hamrin
Having been driven out of Mosul, the extremist Islamic State group is doing what Al Qaeda did before it: setting up new bases in the rugged northern Hamrin mountain area, going back to their old tactics of hit-and-run, guerrilla style fighting against pro-government forces.
According to intelligence from the Iraqi Kurdish military, there have been intensive movements of ISIS fighters observed in the Hamrin mountains over the past few weeks. It is believed that many of the organization’s leaders from Mosul have retreated into this rugged backcountry.
The ISIS fighters often roam nearby at night but then fade away, back into the mountains, in the morning. It is a psychological war.
“After the campaign against them in Mosul, ISIS is returning to the Hamrin area and into the Hawija area, either as individuals or as small groups,” Rasoul Karkui, commander of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk, also known as Wasta Rasoul, told NIQASH. “It is clear that they intend to strengthen their presence in this area. A while ago they announced the creation of their ‘Mountain State.’ But they don’t plan to launch a war [as such] against the Iraqi army or us. They only want to attack us and use guerrilla tactics.”
The Hamrin mountains extend through the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salahaddin, right up to the borders with Iran and even onto some parts of the Syrian border. After ISIS took control of Mosul in mid-2014, much of the Hamrin basin was also under their rule. However counter-attacks by the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military saw them return to pro-government hands and there had been relative stability there up until recently.
The Hamrin basin contains Hamrin lake, the south and east sides of which are under the control of the Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim militias. The north and east are under Iraqi Kurdish control. Military intelligence does expect ISIS to use the lake for travel.
The Hamrin mountains have a long history of insurgent activity. The rugged terrain and the connection to various borders—in particular, Syria’s—facilitate the transfer of fighters and weapons, as well as making it hard for local security forces to keep track.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which saw the government led by Saddam Hussein toppled, most of the anti-U.S. groups that arose afterwards found a home in the Hamrin mountains. That included Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, and the Naqshbandi Army, all of whom could be considered forerunners, or constituents of, the Islamic State.
“ISIS is now resorting to guerrilla warfare after they lost control of the larger cities,” confirms Abdulla Bor, leader of the Iraqi Kurdish forces in the Tuz Khurmatu area, which have been attacked by ISIS fighters several times over the past few weeks.
In early June, Lahur Jangi Talabani, the head of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s intelligence services, went to Baghdad to speak to senior officials there about it. At the end of last week, Talabani told Reuters that he believes ISIS will make the Hamrin mountains a major base and that the Iraqi Kurdish military are expecting hard times in this area.
The Gates of Baghdad
Almost daily, a suicide bomber tries to blow himself up but is thwarted by a soldier at a roadblock who shoots him before he can detonate his explosives. Then another suicide bomber tries again only a few meters away, but is stopped in the same way, by a different soldier.
The local media are not covering these events in the Tarmiyah district, an area that is often described as part of “the Baghdad belt,” the ring of more rural towns and neighborhoods around the Iraqi capital. But locals on social media continuously document the events. And according to their reports, there are one or two incidents every day involving snipers, masked gunmen, explosives, or a suicide bomber.
The reports are often confirmed by local security forces. For example, on July 8, a U.S.-led team attacked what was later confirmed to be an ISIS cell in Tarmiyah; seven ISIS fighters were killed in the raid. Media associated with ISIS also are publishing reports of the group’s "successes" in Tarmiyah.
The area has been mostly clear of ISIS since late 2014, and the Iraqi military conducted a special operation here in April to try and hunt down ISIS members who might still be in the neighborhood. Afterwards the Tarmiyah area was declared safe by the Baghdad Operations Command, which is responsible for security in the capital.
People were encouraged to return, says Sabih al-Salman, one of Tarmiyah’s tribal leaders. But the security forces are still cutting off streets, raiding different areas, and searching for wanted people, he says, “Which means it is not actually as safe as we were told.”
It seems clear that there are ISIS sleeper cells hiding in abandoned houses or keeping weapons and explosives there.
Tarmiyah connects four provinces: Diyala, Salahaddin, Anbar and to the south, Baghdad. If the ISIS can infiltrate this area, it will make carrying out attacks in Baghdad easier—fighters can be funneled from those other provinces into the city through Tarmiyah.
It is also a relatively rural area, with many orchards and farms where extremists could hide, and it takes just half an hour to travel from Tarmiyah to the center of Baghdad, which is about 50 kilometers away.
The locals in Tarmiyah appear to want to protect themselves from ISIS. “It is the duty of the people to act against any of the kinds of activities that will darken this district again," al-Salman says. “If any of the sons of any of the local tribes becomes a member of ISIS, then the tribe should disown him."
On July 10, Tarmiyah residents signed an agreement with the Iraqi security forces that detailed how the community might cooperate with the military. For example, should an ISIS cell be found on a certain property, then the property owner who failed to notice it, or report it, would be held responsible. The person would be punished by both Iraqi law and by his or her own tribe.
Senior Iraqi army officer Hussein al-Maliki told locals that any tribal leader who allowed ISIS fighters to meet or live on his property, say, in an orchard, would have to face repercussions.
“All of the tribes in Tarmiyah signed the agreement and everyone will support the security forces absolutely,” says Sayid al-Jassim al-Mashhadani, another tribal leader in Tarmiyah. “Anyone who hosts a terrorist is a terrorist,” he stressed. “Anyone who carries a weapon against the security forces is a terrorist —and should be treated as such by them:”
The security forces are really hoping this plan works. They believe that most of the attacks taking place in Tarmiyah are happening because of ISIS sleeper cells and that the only way to wipe these out is with the cooperation of the locals.
“We believe the sleeper cells are only small,” al-Maliki said. “And that if the citizens and their leaders help us, then we will be able to eliminate them.”