2018 was the safest year for Iraqis since the advent of the Islamic State (IS) in the summer of 2014, when the group seized control of the city of Mosul and threw much of the country into a state of open conflict. In spite of a brief surge of violence in the spring, 2018 saw a steady decline in the trend of security incidents, with a record low number of terror attacks giving Iraqis relief after years of consistent, deadly attacks and bombings.1.Wing, Joel. “Review of Security Trends in Iraq 2018” Musings on Iraq blog.
However, the security situation in the rural reaches of some provinces remains a matter of concern, particularly since a bloody attack that left 6 Hash’d al-Shaabi fighters dead and more than 30 wounded.2.“6 PMF fighters killed by Daesh in northern Iraq” : Middle East Monitor The rural reaches of Anbar province remain restive as ever, and an escalating insurgency in rural areas of Kirkuk and Diyala, coupled with ongoing tensions in the former city has created a climate that will engender further insurgent activities if not dealt with efficiently. This article will aim to paint a robust picture of the pattern of security incidents throughout the aforementioned provinces, with special focus on Kirkuk and Diyala and the issues that are contributing to the security vacuum there.
Security in Anbar
Anbar province has remained restive and fairly lawless in many regions, thanks to vast stretches of sparsely populated desert and poorly maintained infrastructure networks. In the past Anbar has acted as a staging point for numerous insurgency groups, and is currently experiencing a continuing IS insurgency marked by sporadic bombing attacks and assassinations of local officials. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), assisted by Hash’d al-Shaabi volunteers and local tribal elements, have cooperated to arrest individuals suspected of terror activities, uncover weapons caches, and dismantle explosives throughout the province.3.“القوات الأميركية تنتشر في موقع المزرعة العسكري شرقي الفلوجة” : The Baghdad Post” 4.“شرطة ذي قار تعتقل 39 متهما بمناطق البادية الجنوبية” : al-Mirbad Though the attacks have been sporadic in nature, have had limited effects and low casualty rates, they nevertheless require an ongoing, low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign that must continue to include tribal elements.
Security in Diyala and Kirkuk
Previously a quiet and fairly secure province, Diyala has seen a significant increase in terror incidents in its rural regions since 2017, following the recapturing of Hawija and the crisis in Kirkuk. The territory was previously administered by KRG officials and protected by KDP security forces, but these elements fled when federal troops entered the province simultaneously as they did so in Kirkuk.5.“Iraqi Forces Sweep Into Kirkuk, Checking Kurdish Independence Drive” : The New York Times The departing Kurdish security forces left behind a vacuum that was slowly, only partially filled by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) brigades, and the opportunity for insurgent groups to establish themselves was clear. Operations against IS elements in rural Kirkuk province continue to the present day, waxing and waning in intensity.6.“العراق يعلن تدمير “معسكر عملاق” لداعش في كركوك” : EremNews
Since this past summer, a campaign of bombings, assassinations, and skirmishes against local security forces have escalated as IS cells have established themselves in the countryside between Jalawla and Khanaqin, as well as the mountains around Tuz Khurma and Sulayman Bek.7.“احباط هجوم لداعش على قضاء خانقين” : Iraq Akhbar This insurgency has continued into January, and has intensified even further in Diyala, where the security vacuum continues to be a significant issue.8.Wing, Joel. “Review of Security Trends in Iraq 2018” Musings on Iraq blog. The countryside of Khanaqin has become a haven for IS cells, who have dug in and have a firm grip on the mountains due to the lack of security personnel. While the effects of these attacks are limited and cause relatively few casualties, the rate at which incidents are occurring is rising.
Residents of Jalawla and Khanaqin have taken to social media and local news channels, complaining about the increasing regularity of attacks and demanding that Kurdish security forces take action independent of federal forces, claiming that federal forces are incapable of dealing with the problem.9.“Villagers around Iraq’s Khanaqin, Jalawla evacuate as ISIS attacks increase” : Kurdistan2410.“خانقين توجه رسالة من 4 مطالب لرئيس الجمهورية.. الخطر يداهمنا!” : The Baghdad Post11.“ISIS attacks Jalawla, flees when villagers resist” : ANF English Claims that several villages have come under the physical control of IS forces have floated around, and those fleeing to the larger towns have expressed fears for their safety and their lives with the worsening security situation.12.“Villagers around Iraq’s Khanaqin, Jalawla evacuate as ISIS attacks increase” : Kurdistan24 Speaking to a couple of local residents, who expressed a wish to remain anonymous, International Review has been told that small arms and mortar attacks by the insurgents have become more common, and that the nature of kidnappings has changed. Whereas previous kidnapping perpetrators would often demand a ransom from the victims’ families, recent kidnapping victims have more often than not been turning up dead. The sources report that many of those executed are either from prominent local families or from the families of security agents, who are vulnerable due to their connections. Attacks on security forces have also become increasingly bold, as Khanaqin itself has seen attacks on security forces, often perpetrated with small arms and small explosives. A similar scene has played out in the countryside of Sulayman Bek, though recent weeks have seen somewhat fewer IS attacks, owing perhaps to reinforcements moving into the region from Baghdad.13.“Villagers around Iraq’s Khanaqin, Jalawla evacuate as ISIS attacks increase” : Kurdistan24
ISF and police forces in Diyala seem underequipped and underprepared for the task of rooting out insurgent cells. Locals have consistently complained about the lack of security patrols even on the more heavily-trafficked roads, and have resorted to fighting back on their own terms with their own impromptu militias. As previously stated, many demand the return of peshmerga forces, believing that the peshmerga are the key to reintroducing security into the region. The level of trust between locals and the ISF along with Hash’d al-Shaabi auxiliaries is low, and the lack of trust almost certainly contributes to the atmosphere of insecurity.
Attending to a Flashpoint
Given what we know about the recent series of insurgent activities and the evolving modus operandi of the insurgency in Diyala in particular, it would appear that what was previously a more decentralised insurgency has embraced IS doctrine more so than before. A recent IS propaganda release featuring footage of attacks and executions in the Khanaqin countryside provides more evidence for this. Kidnappings for ransom have turned into acts of terror, with victims executed sometimes on the spot, and the increasingly bold nature of attacks shows a willingness on the side of the insurgents to directly challenge federal forces. Even in their underprepared state, ISF troops are not as easy to target as local police or village militia are; the fact that they are coming under fire more and more suggests growing confidence in insurgent ranks. to this date, there is no reliable publicly available information on the number of insurgents or amount of equipment currently active in the Diyala and Kirkuk regions.
The lessons learned from previous counterinsurgency operations in Iraq can be applied to the situation in Diyala and Kirkuk to combat the threat effectively. First and foremost, effective counterinsurgency requires coordination between local residents and the security forces, which is currently absent. The Iraqi MoD has two primary routes that they can go to resolve this issue: they can either cooperate with KDP security groups to coordinate the return of peshmerga to the province, or they can launch a campaign to increase their presence in the area and build relations with local sheikhs and prominent citizens in order to build trust. The latter option, while more expensive and time-consuming and potentially more risky, would be akin to the 2007 “surge” performed by US-led coalition troops that is credited with significantly reducing the strength of insurgent forces in Iraqi in the years that followed. However, an attempt to repatriate Kurdish security forces to the region to emulate the situation as it was in mid-2017 may be most ideal, given that locals have little faith in Baghdad to assuage their problems. Neither option is a guaranteed success, but working on precedent and applying techniques and strategies learned from previous counterinsurgency campaigns increases the chance of gaining ground against a prospering insurgency.
Baghdad is still occupied with numerous problems even though the 2019 Budget has finally been approved and the status of government salaries has been settled. Effectively attending to each issue may be difficult, if not impossible, but hurdles have been overcome before and will continue to be overcome. As the insurgency in Khanaqin and Kirkuk continues, it is necessary for counterinsurgency elements to take the matter seriously and develop an effective plan of action for countering a threat that will only continue to strengthen if not engaged.