Iraq fears ISIS resurgence after killing of fishermen

Sleeper cells have been carrying out kidnappings, assassinations and ambushes across the country

Iraqi men bury the victims who, according to Iraqi security forces, were killed in an attack by Islamic State militants near al-Tharthar Lake, at the cemetery in Najaf, Iraq February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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Five fishermen have been killed in a suspected ISIS attack in Najaf province, raising fears that the extremist group is stepping up activity in Iraq as its fighters cling to their last patch of territory across the border in Syria.

The fishermen's bodies were found near Therthar lake in Najaf's Abbasid district on Saturday, according to the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR).

"Armed militants attacked the fishermen on Saturday morning," Ali Al Bayati, a board member, told The National.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, it fits in with a campaign of kidnappings and random killings by ISIS sleeper cells to undermine the Baghdad government.

Cells operating in four northern provinces have carried out  abductions, assassinations, and roadside ambushes aimed at intimidating locals and resuming the extortion rackets that financed ISIS's rise to power six years ago.

“It reflects the weakness of Iraq’s intelligence system, which should have prevented these crimes,” Mr Al Bayati said.

This is the group’s new strategy, he said, with attacks increasing as ISIS lost ground in Iraq and Syria.

The killing of the fisherman came just a week after 19 people were abducted while truffle-hunting in the Al Nukhayb desert between the provinces of Najaf and Anbar. Seven were killed, nine have been released and three are still missing.

The victims' funerals were held on Wednesday in the holy city of Najaf, with their coffins covered in the national flag.

At its height in 2014 and 2015, ISIS ruled over a self-proclaimed "caliphate" that spanned one third of Iraqi and Syrian territory and attracted followers from all over the world.

Iraqi forces supported by a US-led international coalition slowly regained control of all the militant-held areas and the government declared victory over ISIS in December 2017.

ISIS emerged as an even more extremist offshoot of Al Qaeda in areas of Iraq where unemployment, lack of public services and anger at the government created conditions for locals to be radicalised. Thousands of its fighters and civilian followers have been killed and thousands more captured. An unknown number remain at large in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraqi security forces say US-backed Syrian forces have handed over about 300 captured Iraqi ISIS fighters in the past week. The Syrian Democratic Forces have besieged a small patch of land near the village of Baghouz , where hundreds of militants are fighting to retain the last sliver of the ISIS "caliphate".

The SDF offensive has been delayed by the need to evacuate thousands of civilians living alongside the militants.