In the span of a few months, Iraq has gone from an optimistic state that had won its war against ISIS to a protest-filled nation confronting the possibility of the terror group’s return.
“Iraq has not learned the lesson from ISIS,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, Iraqi expert on ISIS in March. “Especially when it comes to co-existing and civil security, accepting others and apologizing to others, the same reasons that made ISIS a state are still there and growing.”
That statement, made after Baghdad was liberated and life had returned to the city streets, seems particularly ominous now as the terror group rebuilds in a northern valley of Iraq, outside of government control.
“As we approach politics, its a most serious challenge, the terrorist challenge, I want to point out that Iraqi political life is at a stage of transformation in which victory over terrorism and violence must be strengthened by further reforms and actions that would make it a decisive victory,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih in March.
Since that time, protestors have rallied against poor economic conditions, alleged foreign interference from Iran, and charges of corruption. Demonstrations, now in their second month, have proved the reforms Salih spoke of were merely words and the resurgence of the terror group indicates his administration is incapable of fulfilling the ultimate goal of reshaping the Iraqi government to prevent its return to relevance in his state.
The failure of the Iraqi government is coupled with the recent Turkish invasion into northern Syria during which an unknown number of ISIS prisoners escaped. Both the military incursion and liberation of imprisoned fighters have caused terrorists to cross into Iraq. The new ISIS home, in a valley between land controlled by the Kurdish and Iraqi Army on both sides, is not patrolled by either faction.
“They have some tunnels, they have some caves,” said Gen. Sirwan Barzani, commander of the Kurdish peshmerga forces. “And they are moving — especially at night.”
Kurdish estimates peg the terrorist group at only a couple hundred strong, presently, but that could be enough to spark a resurgence according to Barzani.
“You can say they are [in] exactly the same situation of ISIS in 2012 in Iraq,” he said. “It’s the same situation there now. They are starting to reorganize themselves.”
The group’s return to power was predicted in a report from the US military in February, which gave a timeline estimate of six to 12 months, barring “sustained pressure” on the militants.
The international community is placing blame on the Turkish military incursion into Syria and French President Emmanuel Macron was adamant that Ankara stop the operation. On his behalf, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on Oct. 16. The takeaway from the meeting was that the focus should be on limiting the fallout from Turkey’s role in Syria and the spread of ISIS fighters from the country.
“Concerning the situation in Syria, there was extensive and wide discussions on what the two countries could do considering that France is a main partner in the International Coalition [against ISIS],” Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Ali Hakeem said at a joint press conference with Le Drian following their meeting.
“We were partners in the fight against ISIS, and we have to be partners in the rebuilding phase and the new danger due to Turkey’s incursion into north and northeastern Syria,” Le Drian added.
He called for an International Coalition meeting on the issue in light of the dangers posed by a possible resurgence. For Iraq, more immediate concerns about protests are taking precedence, however.
“Iraq shows all too many signs of returning to the kind of internal instability that led to low-level civil war in 2011 and the rise of (Islamic State),” says Anthony Cordesman, analyst for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, “and that undercuts any efforts to bring stability and defeat extremism”.
Salih is preparing to announce an electoral reform law and will likely call new elections, but few have high hopes for the outcome and protests are likely to continue.