One of the more obvious signs of the weakness of the incumbent Iraqi government, contributing to a wave of protests in the country since the beginning of October, is the deteriorating level of security measures taken in the face of threats from sleeper cells run by Isis, which have reportedly regrouped after the US-led coalition announced their defeat in December 2017.
Ironically, the Iraqi militia group Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which was formed by the Iraqi government in June 2014 to fight Isis terrorists and their affiliates, has now been infiltrated by the Iranian intelligence. The group was fully reorganised in early 2018 by its then-Commander-in-Chief, Haider al-Abadi, who issued "regulations to adapt the situation of the Popular Mobilization fighters," giving them ranks and salaries equivalent to other branches of the Iraqi military which caused dismay among many in the Iraqi forces.
Observers and security experts have expressed concern over the duality of threats embodied on one hand by the spread of Isis fighters to Kirkuk, Diyala, Al- Anbar, and Salahaddin, and on the other hand, by Iranian infiltration of the Hashd militia, which is mainly composed of pre-existing sectarian armed groups that were active in the 2003-2011 timeframe. The latter are mostly Iran-backed militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Both threats in turn pose a high risk to the national security of Iraq.
The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) a German think tank for political studies, outlined in a recent study that the total number of fighters in these Iran-backed groups is between 40,000 and 45,000. They have an effective media wing covering their operations and profit from frequent contributions and an active presence on social media. Most of the groups in this category resisted and challenged the US and coalition presence in Iraq before the 2011 withdrawal. Officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have also helped these groups with training support and equipment, while their members are tacitly encouraged to follow Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in matters of religious jurisprudence.
The study stressed that these groups under the Hashd umbrella lack cohesion and any common strategic vision needed for a long-term campaign against Isis. “At times they are pulled in different directions, given varying objectives of their respective sponsors. For instance, policies pursued by Iran-backed groups are often not in sync with Sadrists (an Iraqi Islamic national movement led by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) and Nouri al-Maliki (one of the three Iraqi Vice-Presidents) competing with Haider al-Abadi, a former Prime Minister, to manoeuvre the overall direction of Hashd forces.”
The internal and international concerns of the growing power of PMF, the close ally of Iran, came to a head when Hashd’s deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes announced the formation of their own air force on September 5th.
According to Iraqi news outlets monitored by Radio Farda, a service of Radio Free Europe, the decision came a few weeks after a series of suspicious air raids targeted PMF locations in Baghdad and other provinces of Iraq. The PMF leadership blames Israeli drones and US forces operating in Iraq. Israel has not officially claimed responsibility for the raids, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted on August 22nd that his country's forces had indeed attacked Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
Meanwhile, unnamed American officials confirmed that Israel has been behind the mysterious attacks targeting Iran-backed militias in Iraq, according to both The New York Times and the Associated Press.
The backlash to this decision came quickly from the Sadrist media, when Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on September 6th that he would oppose the Iraqi federal government if it did not act against the recent disputed order by the Iran-backed Hashd militias to form an air force branch of their own.
“If the government does not crack down, I declare my disownment” of it, Sadr tweeted. He added that this move represents “a declaration of the end of the Iraqi government and a shift from a state that is controlled by law to a state of chaos.”
Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq at the US State Department, warned of the underground extremists in Iraq. “The malign influence of Iran-backed militias in areas of Iraq could lead to new conflict and allow the return of Isis,” Peek said according to The National newspaper in the UAE.
Speaking at the Iraq in Transition conference in London on October 3rd and organized by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Peek said that Isis had not gone from Iraq but was hiding underground. Isis “comes back in areas where there are sectarian gains on religious minority population or populations that are not represented,” he explained. Peek warned that the US and its allies needed to remain “very vigilant.”
Peek’s remarks were backed by an extended report published last month by the American Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and which dealt with the return of Isis sleeper cells in the Levant, specifically in Iraq. The report outlined that Isis’s strategy is intended to exploit the Iraqi people’s distrust of the Iraqi government for its inability to make them feel safe. The targeted killings, particularly of village mayors, coupled with the destruction of crops, have caused mass civilian displacement, sometimes of entire villages in provinces north of Baghdad.
According to a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which monitors Isis sleeper cells, about 338 attacks by Isis fighters resulting in 682 fatalities took place in different parts in Iraq from the beginning of 2019 till last July.
The US-based Research and Development (Rand) Corporation has outlined that Isis cells seek to extort, kidnap, kill, steal, smuggle, and traffic to obtain the money they need to survive. Recently, these cells have used the burning of village crops to compel village residents to flee.
As of early 2019, there were clear signs that Isis cells had regrouped in mountainous and desert areas in northern and western Iraq, such as the Makhmour Mountains in Ninewa province and the Jazeera Desert in Anbar province. In Kirkuk governorate, Isis fighters have constructed fake checkpoints to ambush Iraqi security forces operating in the area. They have also set out to destroy oil tankers and target Shia civilians making religious pilgrimages in Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahaddin governorates.
“Isis sleeper cells retained the ability to conduct complex surprise attacks in both opposition-held and government-held territory, which is another indication of a revived insurgency,” said the Rand report.
A recent UN report stated that Isis has probably between 14,000 and 18,000 “members” including “fighters” in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners. Isis in Iraq continues to recruit from the same areas as before, drawing supporters from family and tribal connections. Some people in these areas are also likely to be coerced into supporting Isis or may be attracted by the promise of payment.