BAGHDAD: Twin suicide blasts in Baghdad claimed by the Daesh group have exposed gaps within Iraq’s security forces, weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, rival armed groups and political tensions.
At least 32 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the double-tap suicide attack that targeted a commercial district in Baghdad on Thursday.
Following the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s security forces had to be effectively rebuilt from the ground up, relying heavily on training by foreign armies. The pandemic put an abrupt halt to that.
Living together at bases with little social distancing, Iraqi troops were some of the country’s first coronavirus victims.
In March 2020, the US-led coalition announced it was pulling out foreign trainers to stem the pandemic’s spread.
“The decreased training over the past year because of COVID-19 created a gap there,” a top US official in Baghdad told AFP last month.
It also meant Iraq’s security services had decreased access to the coalition’s communications surveillance — “an early warning system” that was crucial to nipping Daesh attacks in the bud, said Watling.
Many of those withdrawals became permanent.
The US-led coalition announced last year that Iraq’s army was capable of fighting Daesh remnants on its own and pulled out of eight bases across the country.
At the same time, citing the improving security situation, Baghdad’s authorities lifted the concrete blast walls and checkpoints that had congested the city for years.
Battle-hardened units were moved out of cities to chase down Daesh sleeper cells in rural areas, with less-experienced units taking over urban security.
Security analyst Alex Mello said those rotations combined with less-reliable intelligence may have eventually granted Daesh “a gap to exploit.”
Iraq’s security forces include army troops, militarized police units and the Hashd Al-Shaabi, a network of armed forces incorporated into the state after 2014.
Many were backed by Iran, which generated a mutual distrust with some forces trained by its arch enemy, the United States.
Tensions spiked following the US drone strike last year that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Hashd deputy chief, Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. “The real strain has been political,” said Watling.
“During the fight against Daesh, there was a lot of informal information sharing between the Hashd, the coalition and others. That’s just not there anymore, which reduces situational awareness,” he said.
Navigating those tensions has been a major challenge for Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi, seen as US-friendly.
Following Thursday’s attack, Kadhemi announced an overhaul of Iraq’s security leadership, including a new federal police commander and chief of the elite Falcons Unit. Kadhemi is hoping those changes will not only plug holes that Thursday’s attackers exploited, but could also resolve the deeper issues of trust and coordination.