The challenges of Baghdad in the fight against Daesh

What difficulties will the Iraqi government face in its campaign against the terrorist group?
An Iraqi army soldier stands guard at Qayyarah airbase

PHOTO/AMEER AL MOHAMMED  -   An Iraqi army soldier stands guard at Qayyarah airbase

This weekend, a campaign to weaken Daesh's infrastructure in Iraq begins. The terrorist group, which was territorially defeated in April 2019 after being expelled from Baguz, Syria, has strongly re-emerged in the Middle East region. Despite having lost its most charismatic leader, the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it has managed to re-settle firmly in the rural areas of Syria and Iraq. The terrorist actions perpetrated by his cells are increasingly coordinated, and the threat looms over the large urban centres. 

In this situation, the new government in Baghdad, led by the former head of the intelligence services, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has decided to tackle the danger before it is too late. The Iraqi armed forces, in coordination with their allied militias, will launch a campaign this Sunday, May 24, to try to stop Daesh's expansion.  

There are several factors that make it extremely difficult to completely eradicate the presence of the terrorist group. Some relate to the very nature of the jihadist organisation, but others have to do with the state of Iraq and how it operates.

Un soldado iraquí lleva una máscara protectora mientras hace guardia en un punto de control
REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANIA - An Iraqi soldier wears a protective mask while standing guard at a checkpoint
Less international support 

One of the main new features of this campaign is that the Baghdad government will have to carry it out practically alone. At the beginning of the year, after the United States killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, a member of the Quds Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in a bombing raid on Iraqi soil, Parliament voted for the departure of the international troops. 

Soldados estadounidenses en la base aérea K-1
REUTERS/AKO RASHEEDA - U.S. soldiers at K-1 Air Force Base

The motion includes the US military contingent stationed in the country, precisely one of the main architects of Daesh's territorial defeat. According to the agreement between the high commands of Defense of Washington and Bagdad, the withdrawal of the American troops will begin in June.  

For the moment, the NATO troop training mission in the country (NMI) is still underway with the participation of 500 soldiers from the Alliance and partner countries such as Australia, Sweden and Finland, but, in global terms, the support of international partners on the ground is perhaps the weakest in the last decade. 

Soldados estadounidenses tomando posición alrededor de la embajada en Bagdad
AFP/US EMBASSY IN IRAQ - American soldiers taking up position around the embassy in Baghdad
Allied militias, divided 

The Iraqi government does not have many comrades-in-arms at home either. Over the last few years, Baghdad has constantly relied on a number of militias that have been its allies in fighting Daesh. The main ones are the aforementioned PMFs. Until the last few weeks, they had fought side by side with Shiite armed groups under the command of the influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - and, in practice, Tehran - but that harmony has been broken and it seems difficult to restore it. 

Why? In short, Shiite groups do not approve of the election of Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi, the new head of the PMF, as Al-Muhandis' successor. This dispute has ended up blowing up the bridges even within the group itself, as the Popular Mobilization Authority, the body that oversees the groups' activities, has been split at a critical moment.

Fuerzas de Movilización Popular iraquíes marchan mientras sostienen su bandera y carteles de los líderes espirituales chiítas iraquíes e iraníes durante ‘Al-Quds’ o el Día de Jerusalén, en Bagdad, Irak
PHOTO/AP - Iraqi People's Mobilization Forces march while holding their flag and posters of Iraqi and Iranian Shiite spiritual leaders during 'Al-Quds' or Jerusalem Day in Baghdad, Iraq
Will the government stand for it? 

The division among the militias is a faithful reflection of the sectarianism that is spreading in the social and political life of the country. In fact, the mere fact that there is an Executive constitutes a major victory for Iraqi democracy. The recent investiture of Al-Kadhimi - and, with it, that of most of his cabinet - represents a milestone that has enabled the country to emerge from a temporary situation that threatened to become chronic. 

Since the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi last autumn, two other candidates had run for prime minister, but both failed. Neither Adnan al-Zurfi nor Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi managed to gain the confidence of the MPs. Al-Kadhimi himself admitted, before the approval of his arrival in power, that various factual powers had done nothing but put obstacles in his way. 

Thus, although he was able to establish himself at the head of the government, the former director of intelligence already knows that he should not be trusted. Sectarian feuds are very common in the upper echelons of power in Iraq, so he will be under constant pressure to please everyone - mainly Sunnis and Shias - so as not to be pushed aside prematurely. 

A return to the power vacuum would have very negative consequences on the campaign against terrorism. Jihadist organisations - and Daesh in particular - have shown great ability to take advantage of the absence of strong public power. The Middle East, precisely, has been one of the scenarios where this reality has been most evident. In Syria and Iraq, Daesh was able to flourish thanks to the situation of lack of control generated by the inability of the states to control their territory. Therefore, if Al-Kadhimi does not manage to stay in government, it will be very good news for the terrorists.

El primer ministro designado de Irak, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, pronuncia un discurso durante la votación del nuevo gobierno en la sede del parlamento en Bagdad, Irak, el 7 de mayo de 2020
PHOTO/ Iraqi Parliament Media Office via REUTERS - Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi delivers a speech during the vote on the new government at the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq, on 7 May 2020
Replacing the role of the State

However, even if the Executive remains in place, Daesh can exploit his non-appearance in other ways. Currently, official institutions are not present in all Iraqi territory with the same strength. The State does not have the same degree of authority in the large urban centres as in the vast rural areas. This lack of accountability has led to a neglect of functions that, in many areas, has resulted in the poor provision of public services, from health and education to security. 

What Daesh did during his heyday - and what he is trying to do again in the new phase of the boom he is experiencing - was precisely to get where the state could not. To this end, he established public structures very similar to those presented by any administration, but always based on the most restrictive version of the Koran and the Hadith. 

For this reason, the members of Daesh managed to awaken certain sympathies among some sectors of the population. Despite the fact that it was a jihadist group, responsible for crimes that went around the world because of their harshness, the organization was able to fill certain gaps the Iraqi state had been unable to cover, thus solving or at least alleviating certain needs that had been neglected by some communities. 

Agente de policía iraquí, hace guardia en el toque de queda en Bagdad
PHOTO/AMEER AL MOHAMMED - Iraqi police officer, standing guard at curfew in Baghdad
Winning hearts and minds

Daesh's campaigns are certainly "wet", as they seek not only to take over the territory, but to stay in it. To do this, the leaders of the organization are aware that military power is not enough, but it is necessary to gain certain support among the population. Such was the case in 2015. 

A similar process could not be ruled out at present. The neglect of duties by the public authorities has not been completely corrected, so that Daesh can gradually gain enough support in certain places. Therefore, in a possible confrontation between the two sides, it should not be taken for granted that local communities will automatically support the Baghdad Armed Forces. 

Thus, in view of the anti-terrorist campaign that starts this weekend, Daesh can reap some concrete benefits. In the traditional way of guerrilla warfare, some of the guerrillas may try to camouflage themselves among the local population. Depending on the support the terrorists have in a given area, that place can become a sanctuary for those who want to avoid capture.

Miembros de las Fuerzas de Movilización Popular (PMF), predominantemente chiítas, participan en un desfile de la organización
PHOTO/AMEER AL MOHAMMED - Members of the predominantly Shi'ite People's Mobilization Forces (PMF) participate in an organization's parade
The terrain: One more enemy? 

Moreover, this circumstance can be accentuated if the geographical circumstances of Iraq are taken into account. Territories far from large urban centres are generally not very accessible. In particular, the western end of the country, where most terrorist activity has been recorded recently, is the region that can generate greatest difficulties. 

It is an area almost entirely dominated by desertic ecosystems in which it is extremely difficult to maintain effective control. In this way, Daesh can use the peculiarities of the terrain to his advantage so that his insurgency campaign is not too much damaged.

Vehículos blindados de transporte de tropas (APC) de las fuerzas iraquíes y las PMF avanzan a través de la provincia de Anbar, a 20 kilómetros al este de la ciudad de Rawah en el desierto occidental que limita con Siria
AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - Iraqi and PMF armoured personnel carriers (APCs) are advancing through Anbar Governorate, 20 kilometres east of the city of Rawah in the western desert bordering Syria
A porous border 

In addition, the border line between Syria and Iraq across the desert is quite permeable in practice. The different terrorist groups operating in the region, Daesh among them, have made perfect use of this porosity, so that their range of influence is not limited to a single country. 

The ability of the organisations to weave transnational networks has been one of the main reasons for their resilience; having allies elsewhere has provided a cushion that has enabled jihadist groups to rebuild again and again after successive anti-terrorist operations carried out. 

At present, the situation in Syria is considerably worse than that in Iraq. The country is now moving into its tenth year of civil war and there is no sign of an end in sight. Bachar al-Asad's Syrian Arab Army, supported by Russia, is trying to regain effective control over the entire territory, but the rebels have received renewed impetus thanks to the intervention of Turkey. 

Un combatiente rebelde sirio dispara un cohete Grad hacia las fuerzas gubernamentales en el noroeste de Siria el 8 de febrero de 2020
PHOTO/AFP - A Syrian rebel fighter fires a Grad rocket at government forces in northwest Syria on 8 February 2020

Many of the small groups fighting the Damascus Government come from Jihadist terrorist organisations. What does this mean? Basically, that Daesh's fighters in Iraq have allies on the other side of the border. In the desert regions of Syria, in fact, there has been a recent report of increasing activity by cells associated with the organization headed by Abu Ibrahim al-Qashimi al-Quraishi.

For this reason, even if Daesh's operational elements were captured or expelled from Iraq, it would not mean the threat had disappeared; its co-religionists would still be very much present a few kilometers away, fighting in Syria's war.