A year after ISIS defeat, Iraq continues battling insurgency
Iraq's political elites meanwhile are at loggerheads over the formation of a cabinet
In the year since Iraq declared victory over ISIS, the country’s security forces have struggled to dislodge a lingering insurgency while across the border the militant group remain locked in a death struggle with Kurdish-led Syrian forces.
Former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi celebrated victory over ISIS with a military parade through Baghdad last December 10, which was declared a national holiday. But in comments ahead of the parade, he cautioned against complacency.
“Daesh’s dream is over and we must erase all its effect and not allow terrorism to return," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "Despite announcing final victory, we must remain vigilant and prepared against any terrorist attempt on our country, for terrorism is an eternal enemy.”
Observers warn the difficult task of rebuilding remains incomplete.
"In Iraq you've seen many 'missions accomplished'," Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London, told AFP recently. "But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory – which has always been left for another day."
The victory declaration came three years after the militant group overran nearly a third of Iraqi territory. As nearly a third of Iraqi military units collapsed, ISIS declared a caliphate that stretched from the outskirts of Baghdad and the Iranian border to the deserts of Anbar and onwards into Syria.
As pundits declared "the end of Iraq", even hawkish US generals predicted the war against ISIS could last a decade, while Iraqi Security Forces faced a gruelling task of rebuilding their ranks and then winning back territory in a hard-fought campaign across central and northern Iraq.
Coalition airstrikes proved crucial in aiding the campaign, which culminated in a nine-month battle to recapture Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities. After the city was declared free in July 2017, mopping up operations continued in the deserts of Anbar and remote areas south of Kirkuk until the end of the year.
A year on, the government’s reconstruction efforts have been hampered over delays in swearing in a new government following May elections. Despite presiding over victory against ISIS, Mr Al Abadi failed to secure re-election, being replaced in October by Adel Abdul Mahdi, who declared reconstruction would be top of his agenda.
But so far, Mr Abdel Mahdi, widely regarded as a compromise candidate, has only managed to fill 14 of the cabinet's 22 posts. Key seats, including the interior and defence ministries, remain vacant.
Over the past year, 1.3 million Iraqis have returned to their homes after fleeing violence, but nearly 2 million are still living in displacement, with 8 million reliant on aid. A donor conference in Kuwait in February garnered $30 billion in pledges for reconstruction projects, a third of what Baghdad had asked for.
Destruction was most severe in Mosul, where nearly two-thirds of the city’s housing suffered damage. Seventeen months after the end of fighting, the Old City – where the final days of the battle were fought – remain largely in ruins, with bodies and explosives scattered through some areas of rubble.
The Yezidi homeland of Sinjar remains in ruins too. Nadia Murad, one of the thousands of Yezidi women held as sex slaves by ISIS, was recently named a co-recipient of Nobel Peace Prize and has used her platform to highlight the ongoing plight of her people. More than 3,000 Yazidis who were held captive have never been found, while some 300,000 remain in squalid displacement camps.
“Yazidis want to return to Sinjar but ISIS destroyed everything,” she wrote recently in the Financial Times. “We want bright prospects for our children but we can’t have this unless Sinjar — the Yazidi homeland — is rebuilt. Even now, ISIS is regrouping in territories such as Libya.”
Meanwhile, ISIS sleeper cells have maintained a low-level insurgency, carrying out bombings and assassinations. In May, the coalition and Iraqi forces launched Operation Roundup to track down remnants of the group, which have reportedly taken refuge in underground tunnels in remote and mountainous regions. Recent coalition airstrikes have struck targets outside of Mosul, in the Hamrin mountains, near Hawija, and around Kirkuk.
Across the border, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces continue to suffer heavy casualties fighting ISIS in its last redoubt in the town of Hajin in the Euphrates River Valley.
“As we degrade their capabilities and push them into an ever smaller box, ISIS continues to employ more and more desperate measures,” US Major General Patrick Roberson said in a statement last week. “These tactics won’t succeed.”
The coalition believes some 2,000 ISIS members remain in Hajin, and while Iraqi Security Forces defend the border, Mr Abdul Mahdi has warned that hundreds of fleeing fighters may try and cross back into Iraq.
Despite the capture of a number of alleged high-ranking ISIS members, the fate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi remains unknown.
Updated: December 10, 2018 08:30 PM