Iraqi general says there are only 500 ISIS fighters left in Iraq

Estimates of the group's peak strength between 2014 and 2019 varied from 20,000 to 70,000

Iraqi army forces guard the entrance of the high-security Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad. AFP
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There may be no more than 500 ISIS fighters left in Iraq, a senior Iraqi general has said.

Gen Qais Al Mohamadawi said on Sunday that the group was confined to remote desert areas and struggling to attract recruits, a far cry from its peak when it controlled areas that were home to 10 million people across Iraq and Syria, and drew on adherents from at least 85 countries.

“According to information from intelligence agencies, the total number of ISIS members does not exceed 400 to 500 fighters, in three or four provinces,” Gen Al Mohamadawi told a press conference.

ISIS surged across northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, seizing the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and Mosul in northern Iraq.

The group had gradually worn down Iraqi security forces in the preceding two years in Iraq, and rose to dominate a wider anti-government uprising in eastern Syria.

The reign of the group under Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was characterised by extreme brutality characterised by the sexual slavery of female hostages, acts of genocide committed against the Yazidi minority group and the frequent torture and execution of hostages.

About 200 mass graves linked to ISIS atrocities have been found in northern Iraq following the group’s near total defeat there in 2017.

Estimates of the extremist group's strength have often varied widely. At its peak in 2014, the CIA estimated that ISIS had between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters, while Russia estimated a total force of more than 70,000.

The US military — which makes separate intelligence estimates from the CIA — said in December 2016 that the group had lost 50,000 men, which it said was a “conservative” estimate.

Of the 10,000 ISIS fighters still detained by Kurdish, Iraqi and US forces, about 5,000 are Syrian and 3,000 Iraqi, according to the US military.

With extremists maintaining sleeper cells and hiding among the population, insurgencies of this size can take years or even decades to defeat.

However, the group decided to fight pitched urban battles against a broad US-led coalition of 70 countries, including Iraqi security forces and Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria.

Some experts said the rationale behind ISIS fighting intense battles — in which it suffered tens of thousands of casualties — instead of staging hit-and-run attacks was to hold on to towns and cities where it could collect tax revenue.

In some cases ISIS groups were surrounded and wiped out in bloody last stands, including the third battle of Fallujah in 2015, a desperate fight for West Mosul in 2017 and their last pitched battle at Baghouz in Syria in 2019.

The UN estimated in a report published last month that ISIS still had “5,000 to 7,000 members and supporters” across Iraq and neighbouring Syria, “roughly half of whom are fighters”.

Gen Al Mohamadawi said the group had “lost its ability to attract new recruits”. He pointed to a February 26 military operation that killed 22 of its fighters and destroyed a “training camp” in Al Anbar province.

The UN report last month said ISIS had been much depleted by “sustained counter-terrorism operations” in both countries.

It said the group still operates cells of about 15 to 30 fighters across Syria and continues “guerrilla warfare tactics” against government forces, other fighters and civilians.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 4:17 AM