After Islamic State fighters were driven out of much of Iraq, members of the terrorist group went back to collaborating out of plain sight and a conventional war there turned into a search for their bases. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports with support from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
For four years, the emergency response division, or ERD together with other Iraqi ground troops and support from the U.S. fought and appeared to win a grueling war against ISIS. But the terror group has risen again at the nexus of four provinces, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, Diyala and Sulaimania. It's an area home to strategic roads, oil fields and several mountain ranges, which provide a sanctuary for the militants.
"Clear Sir, we will continue to advance"
These coalition-trained troops are battle-hardened from having fought a mostly conventional war against ISIS. During the four-year conflict, the U.S. supported the ERD with tactical advice, even though the unit had been banned from receiving military aid due to human rights abuses. ERD commanders say their troops have benefited from that advice, but their enemy operates differently now.
We walked three miles through an area where the commanders expected to find 60-100 ISIS members. But these hills and riverbeds offer plenty of opportunities for the militants to hide and so far we haven't encountered any and now the bulldozers and Humvees are clearing this area so it will be easier to patrol in the future.
The jihadists thrive in the dark, attacking check points, kidnapping civilians and security officials, ransoming some and killing others. They also plant improvised explosive devices or IEDs like this one. During the day, the insurgents disappear into tunnels and caves where they keep their supplies out of sight of drones and patrolling soldiers. But despite knowing all this, and not arresting or killing a single ISIS suspect after two days of searching, the ERD commander declares the area cleared. Leaving these vast areas without permanent security presence and effectively surrendering the terrain they supposedly cleared back to ISIS. Since the 2003 American-led invasion and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi army, the country has suffered from weak governance and a fragmented security apparatus. The ERD is just one of many forces operating in the area. Some are regular government troops. Others are militia organized by religious sect or tribe. Driving between the northern towns of Kirkuk, Hawija and Tuz Khurmatu, there's a dizzying number of checkpoints set up variously by the Federal Police, Iraq's Elite Counterterrorism Forces, and a group of mostly Shia militia known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Despite all this security presence, traveling these roads is not safe. In June, ISIS executed six members of Iraq's Security Forces after kidnapping them at a fake checkpoint.
We have counted over a dozen checkpoints along this 30-mile stretch of road, some abandoned, some manned by one of three different security forces who don't necessarily communicate with one another. This lack of coordination has allowed ISIS to set up fake checkpoints, posing as government security officials to then stop vehicles and kidnap civilians or members of security forces.
But it's not just the fragmentation of Iraq's security apparatus that has played into the hands of ISIS. It is also the country's ethno-religious strife. Iraq's Kurdish minority has long desired independence. In 2005, a new constitution granted the Kurds regional autonomy in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds have their own government and their own defense forces, known as the Peshmerga. But the Kurds have pushed for full independence. Last year, they held a controversial referendum, the results of which overwhelmingly favored Kurdistan's secession. The Iraqi Government didn't recognize those results. In response to the vote, it launched an offensive in October last year to retake disputed areas that the Kurds controlled. The two sides briefly clashed, and the Kurds subsequently withdrew north, leaving behind a security vacuum.
ISIS will always exist in Iraq and in Syria, and that's because of the political instability in the region.
Dler Ghazi works for the Kurdish counter-terrorism service. He was in charge of security in Tuz Khurmatu for ten years until the Iraqi Government forced his unit to withdraw last October. I met him in the Kurdish city of Suleimania.
The presence of ISIS in our area is because of the security vacuum between us, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the government of Iraq. And in addition there's a political crisis between us that has allowed such groups to spring up between our borders.
Ghazi agrees to take us to the Kurdish areas that have been most affected by ISIS' resurgence.
This is the last outpost, a little bit further it's ISIS. These guys are volunteers, they are from Tuz Khurmatu and the area. They are volunteering to defend this region from ISIS.
There's no doubt that ISIS has exploited the conflict between the Kurds and the Shia-led government in Baghdad. To find out just how much control the militants have managed to assert over civilians, I travel to rural areas near the Sunni town of Hawija. Hawija was an ISIS stronghold for three years, and was one of the last towns security forces freed in october 2017. Soon after, the government declared victory over ISIS in Iraq. Now, less than a year after Hawija was retaken by the Iraqi government, ISIS has regrouped and is terrorizing the population.
They don't just come at night, even daytime, we are in danger of being kidnapped, killed, slaughtered, robbed. ISIS can do anything. We are under their control.
Civilians say encounters with ISIS have become a near-daily occurrence in this area, but many are reluctant to speak openly about them for fear of being targeted by ISIS. As Sunnis, they also fear the Shia-dominated security forces, whom they blame for failing to secure the area. The government forces, in turn, accuse the civilians of supporting ISIS.
LT. COL. MOHAMMED FLAYEH AL BEIDANI:
It's very difficult to gather intelligence. The reason is the nature of this area. People have close family relations with ISIS, so that's why it's not easy to get information from them.
Muntaha Fouad's son and husband joined ISIS. They surrendered when Iraqi Forces liberated the area, and are currently imprisoned. Fouad herself, and the rest of her family, were accused of being ISIS collaborators by association, and were transferred to this camp an hour east of Hawija. But she insists that she has nothing to do with ISIS.
What is our guilt? I know nothing about my son, I know nothing about my husband. My son made mistakes and paid the price for that. He went and handed himself in to the authorities. What about us as women? It's not fair to be treated like this.
The Iraqi Government forces families of ISIS suspects to stay in these closely guarded camps, claiming that a return to their villages would help ISIS to spread again. But camps or no camps for its alleged supporters, ISIS is re-establishing itself.
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