Cells of IS operating in four northern provinces of Iraq are carrying out kidnappings, assassinations, and roadside ambushes aimed at intimidating locals and restoring the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago.
«IS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria,» said Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, the Iraqi army spokesman.
The militants can count between 5000 and 7000 among their ranks in Iraq, where they are hiding out in the rugged terrain of remote areas, according to one intelligence official.
In Syria, Kurdish-led forces backed by the US-led coalition have cornered the militants in a pocket less than one square kilometre in Baghouz, a Euphrates River village near the 600-kilometre border.
The United States will leave about 400 US troops split between two different regions of Syria, a senior administration official said on Friday, a reversal by President Donald Trump that could pave the way for US allies to keep troops in Syria.
Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2000 US troops Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and US lawmakers and was a factor in Jim Mattis’ resignation as defense secretary.
But Trump was persuaded by advisers on Thursday that about 200 US troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria, the official told reporters.
About 200 other US troops will remain at the US military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan, the official said.
Despite the shift, Trump told reporters on Friday «I’m not reversing course» on Syria, arguing the remaining troops would be «a very small, tiny fraction» of the forces who would ensure that Islamic State does not regroup.
The Iraqi army has deployed more than 20,000 troops to guard its frontier with Syria, but militants are slipping across, mostly to the north of the conflict zone, in tunnels or under the cover of night. Others are entering Iraq disguised as cattle herders.
They are bringing with them currency and light weapons, according to intelligence reports, and digging up money and arms from caches they stashed away when they controlled a vast swath of northern Iraq.
«If we deployed the greatest militaries in the world, they would not be able to control this territory,» Rasoul said. «Our operations require intelligence gathering and airstrikes.»
At its height in 2014 and 2015, the Islamic State group ruled over a self- proclaimed «caliphate» that spanned one-third of Iraqi and Syrian territory. The extremist offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to exterminate religious minorities.
Iraqi forces, with US, Iranian, and other international help, were able to turn the war around and Baghdad declared victory over the group in December 2017, after the last urban battle had been won.
But precursors to IS have recovered from major setbacks in the past, and many fear the militants could stage a comeback. The group is already waging a low- level insurgency in rural areas.
The Associated Press verified nine IS attacks in Iraq in January alone, based on information gathered from intelligence officials, provincial leaders, and social media. IS often boasts of its activities through group messaging apps such as Telegram.
In one instance, a band of militants broke into the home of a man they accused of being an informant for the army, in the village of Tal al-Asfour in the northern Badush region. They shot him and his two brothers against the wall, and posted photos of the killing on social media.
Sheikh Mohamed Nouri, a local tribal leader, said it was meant to intimidate locals in order to keep them from sharing intelligence with security officials.
«I have members of our tribal militia receiving threatening messages warning them to abandon their work,» said Nouri.
In other instances, IS cells have killed mukhtars — village leaders and municipal officials. They have attacked rural checkpoints with car bombs and mortar fire, and burned down militia members’ homes. In the town of Shirqat in central Iraq, militants stopped a police vehicle last month and killed all four officers inside.
Other activities have aimed at restoring the group’s financial footing.
On Sunday, militants kidnapped a group of 12 truffle hunters in the western Anbar province, marking a return to a strategy of intimidating and extorting farmers and traders for financial gain.
Naim Kaoud, the head of provincial security, urged locals to suspend truffle gathering, which has just one season a year and is an important source of income for rural families.
Other truffle hunters have disappeared in the countryside, according to former lawmaker and Anbar tribal figure Jaber al-Jaberi. He said the militants are taking cuts from truffle hunters in exchange for access to the land, and kidnapping or killing those who refuse to cooperate.
«This is one of the sources of their funding,» said al-Jaberi.
After President Donald Trump promised in December to pull American forces out of Syria, Iraqi lawmakers began clamouring for the US to leave, arguing that the mission against IS was approaching its end.
But with no letdown to IS militancy, those calls have petered out.