In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group benefits from Western confusion and disengagement

An Iraqi fighter from the Popular Mobilization Forces following the ISIS attack in Mukaishefah, Iraq, on May 3.
An Iraqi fighter from the Popular Mobilization Forces following the ISIS attack in Mukaishefah, Iraq, on May 3. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

The scale of the attack has been unprecedented for many months. Friday 1er In May, the Islamic State (IS) organization led a coordinated assault on several roadblocks of Iraqi Popular Mobilization (MP) units, a government force dominated by Shiite militias, near Samarra, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. The fighting, which lasted several hours and required reinforcements, left ten dead in the MP.

These attacks in Iraq come as a new mutiny erupted Sunday, May 3, in a prison in Hassake, in northeastern Syria, where foreign ISIS operatives are held, who have fallen into the hands of the Democratic Forces. Syrian (SDS), predominantly Kurdish. In both countries, the group’s survival in the folds of its former territory has enabled it to maintain part of its influence while waiting for the regional equation to evolve in its favor. Rising tensions between Iran and the United States in Iraq, as well as the aftermath of the Covid-19 epidemic, may already have offered it a somewhat less hostile environment.

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Since the start of Ramadan, Iraq has faced a wave of attacks rarely seen since the fall of the self-proclaimed "caliphate" in the country in 2017. After the loss of its territories, the jihadist group had reconstituted cells in the liberated areas. Some 2,500 to 3,000 men are estimated to be expanding their local footprint. Combatants returning from Syria, infiltrated by the porous border which runs over 600 kilometers across the desert, have come to swell their ranks.

Since the end of March, a notable revival of activity of these cells has been observed in the areas where they are most anchored: in the province of Anbar, along the border with Jordan and Syria, and especially in the northeast of the country, in a corridor that extends from the province of Nineveh to that of Diyala, passing through Kirkuk. According to the spokesperson for the international anti-IS coalition, Colonel Myles Caggins, while the number of attacks has increased since the beginning of the year, in April it was still less than the number of attacks observed on the same period in 2019.

"More direct and aggressive attacks"

"There is a qualitative change in the actions that the group carries out, with more direct and aggressive attacks, some even being carried out during the day", analyzes Sam Heller, consultant on armed groups for the International Crisis Group (ICG). The attacks, which are now daily, mainly target positions of the security forces in rural areas, sometimes local notables, using explosive devices and snipers. At the same time, ISIS has increased sabotage operations against electrical infrastructure.

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