Daesh haunts northern Iraq months after its defeat

Daesh insurgent attacks and kidnappings are on the rise in northern Iraq, particularly around the city of Kirkuk were political tensions have further fractured security forces there. (AP)
Updated 28 March 2018

Daesh haunts northern Iraq months after its defeat

BAGHDAD: On a desolate highway in northern Iraq last week, nine federal police officers packed into a large SUV were stopped at a checkpoint they had never seen before. Behind them, a taxi carrying a handful of other officers lagged behind on the long drive from the northern city of Kirkuk back to the capital, Baghdad.
Men dressed as Shiite paramilitaries asked the policemen to hand over their IDs and weapons for inspection, and then took them hostage. When the taxi rolled up, the men at the checkpoint opened fire, causing it to turn around and speed off, according to one of the men in the vehicle.
Those who had been in the SUV would not be seen again until days later, when photos circulated on jihadi forums showed them being forced to kneel before being shot dead by their captors. Daesh claimed the killings.
Iraq declared victory over Daesh in December after driving the militants from the last territory under their control, but in recent months the group has resumed insurgent-style attacks in northern Iraq.
Iraqi security officials say between 150 and 200 members of the security forces have been killed in Daesh attacks across the country in the past few months. The security officials, and the policeman in the taxi, spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the media.
“There are empty spaces between the federal forces and the peshmerga,” said Kirkuk Gov. Rakan Al-Jibouri, referring to the Kurdish forces who have been locked in a months-long standoff with Baghdad.
He said he has repeatedly asked the central government for additional forces to secure the area, but has been ignored. “This issue is not taken sufficiently seriously despite the many incidents,” he said.
Over the past week alone, Daesh has claimed responsibility for six attacks at fake checkpoints, including one that destroyed oil tankers and another targeting Shiite pilgrims. Other attacks have included strikes on oil installations and convoys, with Daesh claiming to have captured weapons and vehicles.
The attacks have focused on rural targets and have increased ahead of elections planned for May. They are in keeping with Daesh documents uncovered by intelligence officials months ago that detailed plans for an insurgent campaign on the heels of the group’s territorial defeat, according to one of the security officials, who works in the government’s anti-terrorism intelligence department.
Over the course of a grueling three-year campaign, Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition drove Daesh from the vast swaths of territory it seized in the summer of 2014, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared a final victory in December. But Iraqi and coalition officials have warned that the group remains capable of carrying out insurgent-style attacks.
A Baghdad-based security official said Daesh fighters are able to move with greater freedom through rural areas and the open deserts in northern Iraq since the US-led coalition began reducing its military footprint earlier this year. With fewer coalition troops on the ground, Iraqi forces are not getting the large amounts of intelligence they did at the height of the fight against Daesh, and coalition surveillance has also been scaled back, the official said.
“Right now it’s a tactical fight. Daesh has been defeated militarily, but the fight for security is not yet over,” the official said.
Since the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the US-led coalition has “shifted” air assets to Syria and Afghanistan, coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press. But he said the coalition is continuing to support Iraqi operations, and is allocating resources according to Iraqi priorities.
“We already know ISIS (Daesh) feeds off of instability and sectarian divides,” he said. “For them to conduct attacks in that area where there are already tensions is something that is not uncommon.”
Despite years of joint military operations against Daesh, tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds skyrocketed late last year following a referendum on independence held in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and other territory then under Kurdish control. Shortly after the vote, federal forces pushed Kurdish fighters out of long-disputed territories, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Tensions have only recently subsided, after Al-Abadi lifted an international flight ban across the Kurdish region and released federal funds to pay Kurdish civil servants this month.
The Daesh attacks show how easily the extremists are able to return to their insurgent roots after military setbacks, said Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“IS (Daesh) has returned to its 2013 tactics without missing a beat,” he said, referring to the relatively low-level attacks that preceded the group’s takeover of the city of Fallujah, followed by Mosul and much of northern and central Iraq the following year.
“This is how they dominate,” he said. “The night first, then rural areas and farming roads and pretty soon security forces are locked up in their bases and IS(Daesh) can once again drive a Humvee all the way from the Syrian border (to central Iraq).”


Trump: Mideast peace plan likely rolled out in days

Updated 17 min 41 sec ago

Trump: Mideast peace plan likely rolled out in days

JERUSALEM: President Donald Trump said Thursday that he’ll likely release the long-awaited White House Mideast peace plan before his meeting early next week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main political rival Benny Gantz.
“It’s a great plan. It’s a plan that really would work,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One en route to a Republican Party meeting in Florida.
He said he was surprised that both Netanyahu and Gantz were willing to take a break from campaigning for the March 2 elections to join him Tuesday in Washington.
“They both would like to do the deal. They want to see peace,” Trump said. “Look, Israel wants peace, Palestinians want peace. They all want peace. Not everyone wants to say it.”
He said his administration has talked briefly to the Palestinians, who have rejected the administration’s peace plan before it even comes out.
“We’ve spoken to them briefly. But we will speak to them in a period of time,” Trump said. “And they have a lot of incentive to do it. I’m sure they maybe will react negatively at first, but it’s actually very positive to them.”
Vice President Mike Pence announced the invitation for Netanyahu and Gantz to visit during at a meeting with the prime minister in Jerusalem after addressing an international forum Thursday on the Holocaust. He said that at Netanyahu’s request, the invitation was also issued to Gantz, a former army chief.
The plan is expected to strongly favor Israel, and is unlikely to garner any international support if it is seen as undermining the prospect of a two-state solution.
“We have had no better friend than President Trump,” Netanyahu said. “With this invitation, I think that the president is seeking to give Israel the peace and security that it deserves.”
The Palestinians rejected Trump’s peace efforts after he recognized disputed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy there in May 2018. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war and annexed, to be their capital.
“If this deal is announced with these rejected formulas, the leadership will announce a series of measures in which we safeguard our legitimate rights, and we will demand Israel assume its full responsibilities as an occupying power,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
He appeared to be referring to oft-repeated threats to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That would force Israel to resume responsibility for providing basic services to millions of Palestinians.
“We warn Israel and the US administration from crossing the red lines,” Abu Rdeneh said.
Israel’s Channel 12 TV, citing Israeli officials, said the plan is expected to be extremely favorable toward Israel and offer it control over large parts of the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians seek the entire territory, which was also captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of a future independent state. Most of the international community supports the Palestinian position.
Netanyahu has said he plans to annex the Jordan Valley as well as Jewish settlements across the West Bank, which would all but extinguish any possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has tried to make that the cornerstone of his campaign for reelection following unprecedented back-to-back elections last year that left him in a virtual tie with Gantz, with neither able to cobble together a ruling coalition.
The deadlock was deepened by Netanyahu’s indictment last year on serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from three long-running corruption investigations. Netanyahu has asked Israel’s parliament to grant him immunity.
Next week’s meeting could produce an awkward scene. Gantz has made Netanyahu’s indictment the focus of his campaign to oust the prime minister. And his Blue and White party is leading an effort in parliament to block Netanyahu’s immunity request before the election. At the same time, they will be joined by an impeached president who is being tried in the Senate.
The US was believed to be holding back on releasing the peace plan until Israel had a permanent government. Those calculations may have changed as the deadlock in Israeli politics looks to be further prolonged.
Trump may also be looking for a boost from evangelical and pro-Israel supporters as the Senate weighs whether to remove him from office after he was impeached last month, and as he gears up for a reelection battle this year.
Pence was among dozens of world leaders in Jerusalem on Thursday for the World Holocaust Forum. Many of the participants, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, also paid visits to the Palestinians in the West Bank.
A Palestinian official said Abbas asked the visiting French and Russian presidents to support the Palestinian position when the plan is published.
“He asked them to refuse and act against any Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing closed meetings.
While the plan is expected to be friendly to Israel, it could still face opposition from Netanyahu’s hard-line partners.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Yamina party, called Trump a “true friend” of Israel and said the country likely stands before a “historic opportunity.” But he said his party would not allow the transfer of any land to Palestinian control or for a Palestinian state to be established.