The Iraq Report: IS defiant as bombs tear through Baghdad

The Iraq Report: IS defiant as bombs tear through Baghdad
This week in Iraq: The Iraqi government has repeatedly failed to stop IS bomb attacks in Baghdad that have claimed the lives of dozens of people.
7 min read
18 January, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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Despite repeated declarations of victory against the Islamic State group, the Iraqi government has repeatedly failed to stop bomb attacks in Baghdad that have claimed the lives of dozens of people.

Although international intelligence agencies say they are zeroing in on IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the one-time self-proclaimed caliph's loyalists are still able to strike deep into supposedly secure cities, and to deadly effect.

The lack of security is compounded by a pronounced level of infighting in Iraq's ruling Shia Islamist party, which has announced that it will field two competing candidates during upcoming elections in May.

Further adding to the electoral chaos are prominent pro-Iran Shia militias who are also fielding candidates, despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring months ago that he would forbid their participation so long as they were bearing arms. However, and as is usually the case with Iraqi politics, what is promised is rarely what is delivered.

Baghdad bombing spree shows IS far from defeated

As 2017 came to a close, Prime Minister Abadi announced that so too was his country's war against IS, having declared victory against the extremist group.

IS had been successfully – though bloodily – ousted from all the territory that it once held as part of the Iraqi half of its "caliphate". Its regional capital of Mosul was prised from its grip last summer, swiftly followed by its last holdouts near the Syrian border.

However, not long after Abadi's declaration of victory, signs began to surface suggesting that it may have been premature. Analysts started discussing the so-called "White Flags", a group that was allegedly recruiting IS alumni. This alleged new group had been conducting attacks against Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and the government was keen on establishing the White Flags as a separate organisation.

However, London-based Iraqi opposition groups argued that the White Flags were none other than IS, and that the White Flag story was designed to distract from the fact that Abadi had failed to actually defeat the organisation.

This week, Abadi's failure to deal with the IS threat as definitively as he claimed to have done was laid bare, as the capital was rocked by several deadly attacks.

A suicide bombing targeting a security forces' checkpoint in northern Baghdad claimed at least eight lives on Saturday, with a further 10 wounded. Police and hospital officials confirmed that the majority of the victims were police officers, with activists stating that many were from the Federal Police force, an organisation that recruits heavily from the Iran-backed Badr Organisation.

Despite the attack and increased security presence, suspected IS attackers launched a twin suicide bombing on Monday, killing dozens. According to General Saad Maan, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, the suicide bombers blew themselves up in central Baghdad’s Tayyaran Square, killing 31 and injuring 94.

Analysts and experts have long predicted that, as IS lost territory, it would free up its remaining fighters to conduct more "traditional" insurgent attacks and engage in a protracted guerrilla warfare campaign.

This was further confirmed by a report in The Guardian on Monday that detailed how the world's intelligence services were zeroing in on elusive IS leader Baghdadi, as Iraqi security officials confirmed the group may be becoming even more dangerous, with its foreign operations directorate remaining relatively unscathed by the recent US-led coalition operations against it in Iraq and Syria.

Ruling party splits to run two rival electoral campaigns

The Islamic State group's attacks in the heart of Iraq's capital come as Iraqi politicians gear up for elections later this year, and Prime Minister Abadi's opponents will seek to use the lack of security in Baghdad to destabilise him and his allies.

Both Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, will be running rival election campaigns and leading different electoral blocs. Although both Abadi and Maliki are members of the pro-Iran Shia Islamist Dawa Party, it is no secret that there is little love lost between the two men, as Maliki was forced to cede power to the as-yet-unelected Abadi after Maliki was unable to prevent almost a third of Iraq falling to IS extremists. 

Maliki is not only the chairman of the Dawa Party, but he is also the leader of the influential State of Law bloc that was blamed for years of mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and sectarian policies that allowed IS to gain a foothold in Iraq in the first place.

Meanwhile, Abadi announced on Saturday that he would be leading the "Victory Alliance" alongside candidates from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, seemingly dealing a blow to Maliki's credentials as a hardline politician supportive of the powerful Shia militias.

However, not a day after his grand announcement, Abadi's office was forced to release a statement revealing that the prime minister's deal with the PMF had already fallen through and that they would be contesting the elections separately – undoubtedly a boon for Maliki.

It is unclear if Maliki played a role in the PMF's decision to abandon Abadi, who had previously promised Iraqis that no militia, no matter how powerful, would be allowed to participate in political life until they laid down their arms.

However, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are heavily invested in the PMF as well as parties such as the Dawa Party, and therefore wield great influence in Iraq's domestic, security and economic affairs.

Abadi's acceptance of the PMF as allies means that it will now be difficult for him to return to his original promise of banning their participation in elections, although they have now positioned themselves against the Iraqi premier.

Militias conduct sectarian abductions, placing elections in doubt

The involvement of these IRGC-backed militias have caused other problems, as not all the players in the political game are willing to go ahead with the elections, with polling slated for 12 May.

Aside from the PMF's well-documented involvement in what has been described as potential war crimes and human rights abuses by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, militias associated with the PMF have resumed abducting people on the basis of their sectarian identity.

Parliamentarian Abdulkarim Abtan held a press conference on Monday, calling on Prime Minister Abadi to open an investigation into a resurgence of abductions and kidnappings, crimes reminiscent of the worst of the sectarian bloodletting that left Iraq on the cusp of civil war between 2006-2009.

On Sunday, leaders of the Juboor tribe who were attending a funeral for one of their family members were kidnapped en masse. Armed men turned up to the funeral in Babylon governorate and made off with the men, with their family members having no idea where they were taken or why.

Other kidnappings have targeted refugee families, with a provincial security official telling The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site on condition of anonymity that refugee families were being discouraged from returning home in order to encourage delays to the upcoming elections schedule. The elections will be thrown into doubt if refugees are not able to return home, and not able to cast their votes in a relatively secure environment.

The fears stirred up by these militants are so significant that a group of cross-party MPs called on Tuesday for the elections to be delayed by up to six months in order to ensure all displaced people are returned home safely and not subjected to any intimidation.

The deputies further added that proposed electoral reforms that were tabled last year had still not been voted upon, leading to further conflicts regarding the impartiality of Iraq's Higher Electoral Commission.

It is unlikely that these politicians will be able to delay the elections until October as they desire. Most of the major political blocs – including influential segments of the State of Law coalition as well as Abadi's allies in the Victory Alliance – are strongly pushing for elections to go ahead as planned in May, irrespective of the status of the more than three million internally displaced persons.

The elections of 2014 set the precedent for a lack of security being no bar to a vote being held, as almost the entirety of Anbar governorate - as well as five other Sunni-majority governorates - largely could not vote due to IS’ sweeping advance and a complete lack of security at polling stations.

While Abadi may have come to power following those elections, he was not actually elected, and observers are concerned that a repeat of the political instability of 2014 may lead to similar levels of violence that almost threw Iraq into the abyss.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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