- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2018

A brazen, coordinated daytime attack in the heart of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region Monday is stoking concerns that the threat posed by the Islamic State has not subsided but is rebuilding its resources in the months after Washington and Baghdad declared the group’s defeat last July.

The strike on government facilities in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, was the group’s highest-profile attack against the city since its blistering military campaign seized territory across Syria and northern Iraq in 2014.

One week after the top U.S. commander in the Middle East insisted that the terrorist group had been contained, three gunmen shot their way into Irbil’s main regional government building.

They continued firing at employees before all three were killed or captured by security forces, according to news reports. One employee was killed and four security force members were injured during the shootout with the militants, who had taken control of the third floor of the governorate building.

“We believe that the attackers are from Islamic State because of the tactics they used in breaking into the building from the main gate,” a security official told the Reuters news agency. At press time, Islamic State had not officially claimed responsibility for the attack.

Kurdish paramilitary forces in Iraq and Syria have been seen as key to the successful fight to turn back Islamic State, often taking the lead in battles alongside Iraqi and U.S. forces.

U.S. military officials characterized a burst of Islamic State operations in sparsely populated Iraqi provinces as the last desperate operations of a movement that once sought to establish a permanent Islamist “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East.

“We’ve always acknowledged that the [Islamic State] networks will go to ground. They will continue to return to some of their terrorist roots. They will continue to try to exert influence and re-exert their networks” after the loss last July of the terrorist group’s de facto Iraqi capital of Mosul — 50 miles west of Irbil, Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command chief, said last week.

American and allied forces are working with their counterparts in Baghdad to address the threat posed by Islamic State remnants, Gen. Votel told reporters at the Pentagon. However, U.S. and Iraqi military leaders say they are confident that the terrorist group is not poised to reassert its dominance in Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

“I’m not ready to declare that an ISIS comeback, or a resurgence, to this particular point,” Gen. Votel said.

President Trump insisted last week that the fight against Islamic State was all but over.

“I think that when you look at all of the progress that’s been made in certain sections with the eradication of ISIS, about 98 percent, 99 percent there,” he said during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Brazen attack

The attack in Irbil has raised questions over the U.S. assessment.

According to reports, several men armed with AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades stormed the Kurdistan Regional Government complex in Irbil and engaged with local security forces in a five-hour gunbattle inside the building. The attackers breached the initial security perimeter and took hostages inside the building. One Kurdish government employee was killed and two Kurdish police officers were wounded, Reuters reported.

One of the gunmen was killed by security forces at the scene, and another reportedly detonated a suicide vest during the attack, Al Jazeera reported. A third attacker was wounded and taken into custody.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for series of terrorist strikes that has Iraqis fearing its full-scale resurgence in the country.

Militants have carried out dozens of kidnappings, suicide bombings and attacks against local government leaders and security forces in the Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk and Saladin, just northeast of Baghdad. The terrorist group has targeted electric plants and oil pipelines and has set up fake security checkpoints along the main road between Kirkuk and Baghdad, The Washington Post reported last week.

“Of course people are nervous. People finally thought there was stability and that they can travel wherever they want, and then there are these attacks and this video, and people are afraid again,” Diyala Provincial Council member Imad Mahmoud told the newspaper.

“The terrorists are attacking from the empty desert and the mountains where there are still small cells. They are not large in number, but they are launching surprise, fast attacks and they have people inside the towns who are helping them,” he said.

Frustration and fear about the potential rise of Islamic State’s next generation in Iraq has been exacerbated by the political upheaval generated by parliamentary elections in May in which a party headed by nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came first and led to lengthy, inconclusive coalition talks.

Southern unrest

The Islamic State’s resurgence has been hastened by growing unrest in Iraq’s south. Hundreds of protesters have descended on the southwestern city of Basra in the past week to demand better government services and to lambaste rampant corruption that they say plagues the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

In an attempt to quell the unrest in Basra and the surrounding areas such as Amara, Nasiriya and Najaf, Mr. al-Abadi ordered units from the Iraqi army’s 9th Division to restore order. The Iraqi leader also cut all internet access in Baghdad to keep protest organizers from rallying more followers to their cause, according to local reports.

Mr. al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance captured over 40 percent of the parliamentary vote in the May elections, and the Iranian-backed Fatah alliance came in second. Mr. al-Abadi’s Victory alliance came in third place, forcing Mr. al-Abadi’s party to form a ruling coalition with Tehran and the Sadrists.

Mr. al-Sadr’s victory has drawn concern from U.S. and allied commanders, since the Shiite cleric has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and warning that those troops could become targets of Shiite paramilitary groups.

Canadian forces were tapped this month to lead NATO’s new military adviser mission in Iraq, as part of an effort to transform the U.S.-led coalition into a more multinational campaign.

The NATO mission can proceed only with the explicit endorsement and cooperation from Baghdad, which U.S. and allied military leaders acknowledge is uncertain.

“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq, and we are pursuing the things that they have asked us to provide assistance on,” Gen. Votel said. “And as we move forward, I expect that we will continue to do that.”

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