Iraq is in total chaos from two unconnected threats to its very existence. On the one hand domestic protesters have brought the country to a standstill with their demands for a total clear-out of the government – president, prime minister and all; on the other, ISIS is staging a full-scale regrouping in the vast areas that lie between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north and government troops down in the south.
Anti-government protests began sweeping across Iraq In September 2019. They quickly turned violent as the government responded with assassination attempts and kidnappings of prominent activists. The latest to be killed was Alui al-Assami. On December 20 two unidentified gunmen riding a motorcycle intercepted Al-Assami in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, fired on him and killed him instantly. Later that day protesters headed to the headquarters of political parties that are widely seen as affiliates of Iran and set them ablaze.
The government’s violent crackdown on protesters has led to the deaths of dozens in Nasiriyah, but it has failed to bring public servants back to work. So far the security forces, or Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have killed nearly 500 protesters, most of them unarmed civilians. Well over 27,000 have been wounded. Live rounds are reported to have been used, and military-grade tear gas canisters fired directly into crowds.
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Meanwhile Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani has condemned the continued crackdown on demonstrations and called for an early election. After prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned amid national anti-corruption demonstrations, the Iraqi parliament missed its constitutionally mandated duty to nominate a replacement. Despite rumors to the contrary, no-one had been nominated by December 25.
Officials say that Iran, a key player in Iraqi politics, wanted to install Qusay al-Suhail, who served as education minister in the previous government. But protesters categorically reject his candidacy, along with anyone from the wider political establishment which has been in place since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. They are demanding the resignation of both President Salih and of parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi.
Electoral reform has been among one of the protesters’ top demands, and the national parliament in Baghdad has approved several articles of a new draft election Bill. The draft law proposes changing the electoral system to a mix between direct voting and party lists, but this latter element has already been rejected by protesters, who believe it gives the parties too much power and would allow them to disregard voters’ wishes.
It is obvious that some sort of resolution on the political front is still a long way off.
Meanwhile ISIS is reforming and diversifying. On December 22, 2019 the BBC led its main news bulletins with a report indicating that two years after losing the last of its territory in Iraq, ISIS is re-organizing in the country. The report claimed that ISIS was mounting a sophisticated insurgency.
The militants are now more skilled and more dangerous than al-Qaeda, according to Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official. A different kind of ISIS has emerged, he says, which, to avoid being a target, no longer wants to control territory. Instead – like their predecessors in al-Qaeda before them – the extremists have gone underground in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains.
“This is the hub for ISIS right now,” he said. “It’s a long range of mountains, and very difficult for the Iraqi army to control. There are a lot of hide-outs and caves.”
The militants are benefitting from strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government. Kurdish intelligence officials estimate that ISIS is10,000 strong in Iraq with between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, and a similar number of sleeper cells and sympathisers.
Reestablished In northern Iraq , ISIS is raising money by extorting payments from farmers under penalty of destroying crops. It also has investments in markets ranging from car sales and fish farming to production of cannabis. It is in the ungoverned spaces in eastern Syria and across northern Iraq, particularly in the border areas between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and those that the central government controls, that have been taken over by ISIS. And small ISIS units are operating in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar.
ISIS has been recruiting followers among the tens of thousands of people housed in the Kurdish-run displacement camps in Syria, especially Al Hol, home to 70,000 people. To this must be added some 10,000 ISIS fighters in separate makeshift prisons.
More than a year after Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS, the movement is rising from its ashes like the legendary phoenix. A politically ravaged Iraq, its government clinging precariously to power, has provided prime conditions for ISIS to stage its comeback. Unless the West takes notice reasonably soon, the five-year battles of 2014-2019 may have to be fought all over again.