Four months after Iraqi government troops drove the last remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terror group from the country, the militants are waging a growing campaign of ambushes and hit and run attacks that has rendered that victory nearly futile.
Over the past few weeks insurgents have been attacking the Iraqi security forces in areas which the government had taken back from IS, nearly every day, showing a high level of organisation and probably having inside information on the deployment plans of the soldiers.
By all accounts, the deadly ambushes and raids, especially those on the main highway linking Baghdad with the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, reveal the enduring security threat posed by IS remnants.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi declared victory over the terror group in December after Iraqi security forces backed by Shia paramilitary forces drove the militants out of the last pockets of territory under their control.
However, the new attacks, which have killed scores of Iraqi soldiers, underline that the IS terror threat is far from gone, and the Al-Abadi government’s counter-insurgency policies continue to be troubled and troubling.
Since 2014, when Iraqi forces launched a counter-offensive to take out the so-called caliphate declared by IS, the jihadist group has lost significant territorial control, and it no longer holds any major cities.
The new attacks, some of them execution-style killings, deal a severe blow to Al-Abadi’s government and to the US-led International Coalition against IS at a time when Iraq is preparing for crucial elections in May.
News reports show that the militants are especially active in the rugged region of northern Iraq that juts into the country south of the troubled oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
In recent weeks, the militants have waged a series of surprise attacks on desolate positions of the security forces in the area, raising the possibility of the eruption of a new insurgency.
In one of the most widely reported incidents two weeks ago, eight federal police soldiers packed into a large SUV vehicle were kidnapped after the vehicle was stopped at a fake checkpoint on the long drive from Kirkuk to Baghdad.
Two days later, photographs circulated on jihadi Internet forums showed the eight policemen being forced to kneel before being shot dead by their captors and thrown onto a nearby pitch.
In mid-February, gunmen ambushed several members of the Shia-controlled Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) near Kirkuk, leaving 27 dead.
Diyala, the mostly Sunni province that borders both Baghdad and Kirkuk, has been plagued by violence since the end of the war on IS, and militants have tried to take control of some villages.
To the north, insurgents have carried out several attacks against army and police checkpoints in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which was taken back from IS in July.
In one attack, five soldiers were killed and injured in an attack launched by IS in Badush, west of Mosul, on 29 March.
Reports said the group had set up several ambushes in the province, which served as the seat of the self-declared caliphate after its seizure in 2014.
Isolated cells believed to be linked to IS also remain active in some parts of the western Anbar Province on the border with Syria. In recent weeks, suspected IS insurgents have carried out several attacks targeting security forces in the largely desert area.
Iraqi security officials say that between 150 and 200 members of the security forces have been killed in IS attacks across the country over the past few months.
Meanwhile, IS has claimed that its militants have killed or injured 103 government troops within a month in different Iraqi cities, including six attacks at fake checkpoints, among them one that destroyed oil tankers and another targeting Shia pilgrims.
Other attacks have included strikes on oil installations and patrols, with IS claiming to have captured weapons and vehicles.
In an online statement the militant group said that “thirteen Iraqi troops were taken captive during the period from 19 February to 21 March.”
The militant group further claimed that its insurgents had destroyed 12 armoured vehicles and an oil tanker during the aforementioned period.
The attacks have underscored the confusion within the government. Initially, Al-Abadi blasted the reports of the attacks as fake news and accused unnamed parties of trying to play down victories by government forces.
Later, however, Al-Abadi admitted that “the country is engaged in a fight against IS sleeper cells.” He even called on Iraqis to “close ranks” in order to stop what he termed a possible “recurrence of the military and security collapse”.
While Al-Abadi was referring to the rapid unravelling of the Iraqi military in summer 2014 when IS seized major cities and large chunks of land, his admission after the recent uptick in violence exposed the risk he had taken when he said the militants had effectively been defeated.
At any rate, the swift return of IS terrorists to wage a new campaign underlines the difficulties Iraq is facing in crafting a counter-insurgency strategy to confront the guerrilla raids the group is conducting at present.
The emphasis in the war against the IS strongholds was on fighting conventional city warfare and destroying the resistance of the IS militants in order to take back the cities from them.
That strategy worked out well because the militants were ill prepared to fight uniformed adversaries bolstered by tanks and powerful air fire supplied by a mighty International Coalition led by the US military.
But as Iraqi troops now face the difficult task of a war against a guerrilla movement, it appears that the government’s security forces lack a clear strategy and probably even leadership.
Arguably, the Iraqi security forces are not well-adapted to confronting smaller and more mobile guerrillas who can move in quickly and keep their battles short.
As the events now unfolding indicate, there is also a complete absence of coordination between the military and the PMF, which is an umbrella organisation for the Shia militias that in theory are part of the government’s security forces.
Underlining this gulf between the military and the militias, powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr proposed this week that his Al-Salam Brigades paramilitary group should take responsibility for safeguarding the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway.
In addition, the US military role is increasingly becoming unclear or even contradictory. Although the US-led Coalition says it is continuing to support Iraqi operations to assist the country in the fight against IS, Washington’s entire anti-IS strategy looks a shambles.
US President Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement last week that the US would “be coming out of Syria likely very soon” has raised serious questions about Washington’s commitments in Iraq.
One major flaw in Iraq’s post-IS counter-terrorism strategy is that no adequate political efforts have been made for the stabilisation of Sunni-dominated areas in order to ensure that as IS is defeated its networks will not simply splinter off or re-emerge.
This shortcoming in the political and military strategy to stop IS from rebuilding and waging such guerrilla-style attacks will certainly continue to fuel insecurity in Iraq and help the group to reconstitute in some areas.
If nothing else, it will be a reminder of a futile victory and its cost in destruction and human blood.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly