Iraq struggles with its Daesh legacy
A UN team that had, over the previous two and a half years, investigated Daesh’s atrocities against Iraq’s Yazidi community and other crimes this month submitted its report to the UN Security Council. The head of the team, British lawyer Karim Khan, told the council that the terror group had intended “to destroy the Yazidi physically and biologically.” About 10,000 Yazidis were killed, 200,000 remain internally displaced and nearly 3,000 mostly women and children are still missing.
Khan spoke of executions, slavery, sexual slavery and crimes against children that were “horrific and really chill one’s soul.” The UN team concluded that Daesh’s crimes against the Yazidi people “clearly constituted genocide.” The team identified 1,444 Daesh militants who had perpetrated these attacks.
A little before the report was presented at the UN, a group of Iraqi families reached Mosul from Al-Hol camp in Syria, which accommodates about 60,000 family members of Daesh militants. They came into the custody of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces after the last Daesh stronghold in Syria, Baghuz Fawqani, fell in early 2019. About half of those in the camp are believed to be Iraqis.
Concerns pertaining to Daesh do not just relate to recent history; they are a painful daily experience.
The Iraqi government is committed to taking back some of these families in batches, but the process is proving very difficult due to resistance from communities in Iraq. Iraqi politicians have described their return as a “disaster” and a “time bomb” — a reference to the radical views that some of the women are believed to hold. Most of them are likely to be accommodated in temporary camps of the kind they would be leaving behind in Syria.
In Iraq, concerns pertaining to Daesh do not just relate to recent history; they are a painful daily experience. Daesh members, believed to be dormant in sleeper cells in different parts of Iraq, regularly emerge from their hideouts to carry out acts of violence, including bombings, shootings and executions.
In January, Baghdad was rocked by two suicide attacks in a crowded market, which killed 32 people. This was followed just a few days later by an attack on the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Tikrit, in which 11 Shiite militants were killed. In March, eight people were shot dead by Daesh militants in a Sunni village in Salahuddin province on the grounds that they were “spies” for the PMU.
Daesh is said to have 2,000 to 3,000 militants in Iraq. It has claimed that, in 2020, it carried out more than 1,400 attacks in the country, inflicting nearly 3,000 casualties. This year, there have already been several deadly attacks on security forces, with 19 Iraqi and Kurdish personnel killed. Daesh militants blew up two oil wells in Kirkuk this month.
Iraqi forces carry out regular operations against these militants and occasionally apprehend or kill their senior figures. Early this month, there were reports that Abu Ali Al-Jumali had been arrested in Fallujah. During the period of Daesh domination in Iraq, he was deputy governor of Mosul and then governor of Fallujah. However, as the continuing Daesh attacks indicate, these security initiatives have been of limited value and very few fighters have been eliminated.
There are many reasons for this situation. The most important explanation is that the long period of war, occupation and domestic conflict has made the country’s institutions fragile and ineffective. This is most apparent in the functioning of the security forces, which are divided among central forces, the Shiite militias of the PMU and the Kurdish Peshmerga and often operate at cross-purposes.
While the counterterrorism service and the PMU gave a good account of themselves during the war with Daesh, the long period of low-level skirmishes since then has debilitated the units and diluted their morale — a situation aggravated by the ongoing pandemic.
Some of them have also become vulnerable to corruption. In early May, the government issued orders to arrest three commanders at the border post at Rutbah, on the Amman-Baghdad road and relatively close to Iraq’s borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They had abandoned their posts and left their weapons, communications equipment and transport vehicles for Daesh fighters.
This episode has heightened concerns about a nexus between security officials and Daesh militants, as well as the former’s involvement in the region-wide drugs and weapons smuggling operations that Daesh uses to augment its funds. Given the indications from Washington about President Joe Biden’s keenness to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Iraq, there are fears that Daesh may get further emboldened, as its cadres would enjoy more free movement and increased local support. There have recently been reports of 38 Kurdish youths joining Daesh and preparing to carry out attacks with explosives.
These developments could have serious implications for Iraq, given that the UN team that investigated Daesh’s crimes also suggested that the group had made tentative forays into developing chemical and possibly even biological weapons, together with experiments on captives.
As a security expert recently warned, Daesh “has never been defeated” — it is only organizing itself “for the next phase.”
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India.