Al Azhar warns of ISIS efforts to regain its status in Iraq

It comes as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated after the US killing of Qassem Suliemani

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 22, 2017, US troops walk as a US C-47 Chinook helicopter flies over the village of Oreij, south of Mosul. The US said on January 10, 2020, it would not discuss pulling troops from Iraq after its caretaker prime minister asked Washington to send a delegation to begin withdrawal arrangements. "At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership -- not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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One of the highest Sunni authorities in the region warned on Tuesday that ISIS is using Iraq's current political and military crisis to gain ground.

Al Azhar University’s Observatory, which has been closely monitoring ISIS, said the group is attempting to reform and improve its status in Iraq.

“The group is using technology and digital platforms to spread their messages and ideology to recruit young individuals to regain its grounds,” the observatory said.

It called on the international community to unite in the face of terrorism to halt the group’s resurgence.

The warning comes as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated in Iraq prompting fears that ISIS could make a comeback amid the upheaval.

It follows the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and top Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis near Baghdad airport earlier this month.

Tehran retaliated with rocket attacks carried out by militias against US personnel stationed in Iraq.

The tit-for-tat strikes pushed the Iraqi parliament to issue a non-binding call for the estimated 5,000 US troops and other foreign forces to leave the country.

The decision was mostly driven by pro-Iranian factions in parliament.

But US President Donald Trump’s administration said it is determined to keep troops in Iraq.

US troops are involved in active operations against ISIS remnants, but most are engaged in training the Iraqi army.

US-Iran role in the fight against ISIS

The presence of US troops in Iraq is part of a request for assistance to combat ISIS that was sent in 2014 when the group seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.

Although the US and Iran have not had any diplomatic relation since 1980, the two found common ground in their battle against the insurgents.

General Suleimani played an important role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

Iran was also heavily involved in the battle, they were the first to provide assistance by deploying its own troops on the ground.

Yet it was unclear how closely they cooperated.

Fears of ISIS resurgence 

While experts are concerned about the return of ISIS, they also say that a US withdrawal will not mean that ISIS will have a strong reprisal.

A US withdrawal or even a reorientation will likely work to ISIS' advantage. However, while this would entail a deterioration in security, it does not mean a return to 2014, Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, said.

"The Iraqi state and the Iraqi security sector are very different today to what they were six years ago, so too are political and social dynamics in the areas that fell to ISIS," Mr Haddad told The National.

Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, an independent analyst who monitors ISIS, believes the group has not made any immediate tangible gains from the recent tensions except for their relief about the assassination of General Suleimani.

If US troops were to withdraw from the country then it could mean that Iraqi forces would "lose an important source of support for keeping ISIS in check in some rural areas," Mr Al Tamimi told The National.

“This could allow the group to gain strength in conducting insurgent operations, though I don’t think it will necessarily lead to ISIS seizing large swathes of territory,” Mr Al Tamimi said.

Yet, the fallout from General Suleimani’s death appears to have negative ramifications for the counter-ISIS campaign, said Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace.

"Concerned about force protection, the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has announced a suspension of its operations," Ms Yacoubian said, adding that the group will "exploit heightened sectarianism to seek additional recruits."