A man called out for help in a crowded market in central Baghdad last Thursday, and, when people had gathered around him to offer help, he set off explosives he was wearing around him, attached to belts. The incident, described as “twin attacks” in the international media, has raised fears of a new sectarian conflict in Iraq between Shia government forces and the Sunni Islamic State (IS) militant group.
IS has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was meant to target “apostate Shias”. This was the first terrorist attack in the country’s capital in three years, though they are still routine events in northern areas of Iraq and in the country’s Western Desert, mainly targeting the security forces.
Andrew Mumford, a professor of war studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK, said the bombings represent a “reminder that the threat from the group has never actually gone away.”
“Although [former US president] Donald Trump kept referring to the group as ‘defeated,’ it still retained large financial resources and thousands of loyal fighters, as well as a sense of unfinished business. The attacks are a stark warning to new American President Joe Biden that he cannot forget about the latent threat Islamic State poses. After the fall of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the group is degraded but not destroyed,” Mumford, an expert on Iraq, said.
A similar view was shared by Nate Rosenblatt, a researcher at Nuffield College of Oxford University in the UK who previously lived in Iraq. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that most IS activity centred around the governorates of Diyala, Salaheddin and Kirkuk, with the IS ambush of the security services in Diyala on 23 January being a “typical example of the threat they pose.”
Rosenblatt said that if attacks in Baghdad became “more than one-off incidents,” then the Iraqi government and counter-terrorism services (CTS) could face pressure to take more urgent action against IS. “If the CTS is not prepared to do so, it may set the grounds for IS forces to entrench themselves in territory they de facto control north of the capital,” he warned.
However, Kevin Jones, a history scholar at the University of Georgia in the US, does not “necessarily see these bombings as foreshadowing a major shift in the conflict” in Iraq.
“Like many terror attacks, this operation seems to have been designed to provoke an overreaction on the part of the government. If the state responds by executing large numbers of IS prisoners or arresting large numbers of Sunni civilians in retaliation, the group will once again attempt to present themselves as the defenders of Iraqi Sunnis against the sectarian assault of state forces and Shia militias,” Jones said.
For now, he noted, the attacks seem like a “bit of ‘dead cat bounce’ from a diminished and faltering terrorist group.”
Backed by the United States and the Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the Iraqi government said in December 2017 that its territory “has been completely liberated” from IS control after the latter had managed to occupy large parts of Iraq and Syria three years earlier. The government said that its forces had secured the Western Desert and the border with Syria.
The announcement was welcomed by Washington, with US special envoy to the US-led Coalition fighting IS in Iraq, Brett McGurk, congratulating then Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi and the Iraqi people on “this significant achievement, which many thought impossible”.
After the war, which led to the displacement of 3.2 million people, many IS militants reportedly fled to rural areas of Syria. Others, according to some reports, went to Turkey.
But the end of the IS chapter in Iraq was followed by diminishing security support by the Americans to Baghdad. One year later, former US president Donald Trump expressed “eternal gratitude” for the military work conducted by US troops in Iraq, but stressed that “we’re no longer the suckers.” Trump said that “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth,” signalling his intention to withdraw US troops from Iraq.
In November 2020, in a move that caused concerns about an IS comeback, the Trump administration said it would withdraw thousands of US troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan by January this year. “By May, it is president Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” then US national security adviser Robert O’Brien stated.
“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office,” O’Brien said. The decision was not only followed by the conclusion of the fighting against IS in Iraq, but also with peace talks with the Taliban group in Afghanistan.
Trump should not be held solely responsible for the smaller US military role in the region, for the withdrawal of the US troops was initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama following the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011. At the time, there were more than 100,000 US troops in the region, and a process of gradual withdrawal began to take place after the Bin Laden operation.
It is not yet known what new US President Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice-president, will do in Iraq. He has appointed Lloyd Austin as US defence secretary, a man who served as the commander of the US troops in Iraq in 2010, when the Americans had 50,000 troops in the country. According to the New York Times, Austin believed that more than 5,000 US troops had to stay in Iraq to back the Iraqi military, something which Obama rejected in his decision to evacuate them in 2011.
Rosenblatt believes that Biden is “well aware of the risk” of an IS resurgence in Iraq given increases in the group’s activities in Syria and Iraq during the latter half of 2020. “I do not think it changes the Biden administration’s overall approach towards Iraq, but it may perhaps increase its urgency,” he said.
Jones agreed that Thursday’s “human tragedy” will not “change the policy calculus of the Biden administration in any significant way.”
“It seems safe to predict that the Biden administration wants to improve relations with Iran somewhat, to improve security coordination with the Iraqi government and to avoid at all costs any deeper entanglement of US troops in Iraq. Any real resurgence of the Islamic State group would only increase the administration’s incentives to work more closely with both Iran and Iraq,” he said.
“As pressure for and against rejoining the JCPOA [the nuclear deal with Iran] continues to mount, a coordinated campaign against the Islamic State group would strengthen the bargaining position of Iran and weaken the Israeli demand that Iran cease all aid to Shia militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a precondition for restoring the JCPOA status quo ante,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.