Dozens of people have been killed in a series of attacks launched by Islamic State (IS) in locations north of Baghdad over the past few months, prompting fears that the terrorist group is reconstituting itself in parts of Iraq (al-Hadath, March 28; al-Sumaria, July 1).
IS has lost all of its urban strongholds in Iraq, including Mosul, which it occupied in June 2014 and which was reclaimed by Iraqi forces last year with significant U.S. support. However, the recent surge in IS activity indicates that the group is now pursuing its old hit-and-run tactics in Iraq, and serves to illustrate how IS could exploit the divisions that remain among Iraqi factions.
Shia Anger and a Resurgent IS
The recent IS operations culminated in a bloody, high-profile attack that caught the nation’s attention. A group of IS fighters kidnapped six Shia men on June 23, showing them in a video and giving the Iraqi government a three-day ultimatum to release Sunni women in Iraqi prisons, or the men would be killed (Sky News Arabia, June 23). The government refused to negotiate and the bodies of the men were found once the deadline had expired, prompting outrage in Shia areas (urdoni.com, June 27).
This anger was not directed against Sunnis, as happened during the worst years of sectarian violence between 2005 and 2007. Iraq’s Sunni communities have in any case become weaker and more submissive since the IS saga, and there are fewer mixed areas in Iraq. Instead, the collective Shia rage was directed against the government of Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, for the way it handled the incident. Abadi, a perceived moderate Shia who enjoys overwhelming support from the United States, responded by ordering the launch of military operations and a new strategy that targets IS cells and tracks them to their hiding places (al-Ittihad, June 29).
The government’s new strategy, however, is facing significant challenges. After 2014, Iraqi troops could rely on the backing of the United States and other Western allies in terms of aerial images, intelligence support and military planning. When IS was in control of big cities and urban areas, their movement was easier to detect and military operations against the group had larger and clearer targets. Since the security forces recaptured Mosul and liberated other cities and towns across Iraq—announcing a final victory over IS in December—IS survivors retreated to the Hamrin Mountains, from where they now operate (Rudaw, August 7, 2017). Hamrin extends in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk and Saladin, and it is now far less easy to locate and target IS groups.
The Iraqi forces should have expected such a move. The forerunner to IS, the Islamic State of Iraq, similarly retreated to the Hamrin Mountains after being weakened by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-backed Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) fighters in 2007 and 2008.
Reconfiguring and Adapting
Analysts had speculated that IS would take a step back and become a more conventional insurgent group after its territorial losses. That assumption appears correct, but the situation requires further analysis.
In April, an editorial appeared in the IS weekly newspaper al-Nabaa that referred to a vow by the group’s previous leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, to make Iraq a “university of jihad” that would train Islamist extremists. Abu Omar, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in April 2010, was the first leader of Islamic State in Iraq, ahead of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The reference to Abu Omar and his statement, made during a difficult period for IS as it was driven into retreat by the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, is meant to inspire the group’s followers reminding them how the group eventually staged a spectacular return after near-defeat. The al-Nabaa article also recalls the memories of the field leaders who led the charge to take Mosul and other cities in 2014 and claims that such a move could happen again at any time. 
While most of the recent attacks have been on relatively small targets, IS carried out a number of larger operations against Iraqi forces and Shia militias in Saladin province in May and June. These challenge the Iraqi authorities’ claim that the situation in Iraq is stable and back under the government’s control. IS claims that the Iraqi armed forces, rebuilt by the United States after the 2003 invasion, have become more like an unruly gang. While the IS assessment is inaccurate, it should be taken seriously.
A big part of the Iraqi military success has depended on the Popular Mobilization Units, an umbrella of Shia militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Unlike the previous Sahwa fighters groups, which was a U.S. military initiative to organize local Sunnis against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later IS in Iraq, local Sunni tribesmen who want to fight IS now do so under the auspices of the PMU. That puts them under the command and influence of the Shia militias (Baghdad News, November 5, 2016). IS’ attempt to play on this is meant to tap into the grievances of the poorest and most disfranchised segments of the Iraqi Sunni community.
Iraq’s Shia Strengthened
A series of defeats and miscalculations has weakened the Sunni rejectionist movement, which represented a challenge to the U.S. military and the post-invasion Shia-led government. The Iraqi Sunni community in general was appalled by the harsh policies IS imposed on Sunni locals who fell under its rule and the devastation caused by the military campaigns to retake control of the cities and towns the group held.
That situation silenced many voices who were critical of the measures of the Shia armed groups or political parties. Tribesmen joined the PMU, but so too Sunni political parties and politicians have come increasingly under the influence of Shia parties. The Sunni rejectionist movement is now far weaker than it was after the invasion. Still the Sunni resentment will always form the main driver of recruitment for IS. The slow pace—or sometimes complete lack—of reconstruction in the cities that suffered heavy damage in the fight against IS is a hindrance to developing trust between the people and the government. There are also worrying reports on corruption within local government and the security forces (al-Khaleej, February 23, 2017).
Another division in Iraq that continues to prevent the defeat of IS is the rift between the Baghdad government and the Kurds. The operation to retake the city of Hawijah in the racially mixed Kirkuk province was one of the last operations against IS in the cities (arabi21.com, October 4, 2017). It was also the last time Iraqi military units coordinated military efforts with the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Kurds watched as the Sunni-Shia divide led to the rise of IS and saw an opportunity to use their U.S.-backed military efforts against the group as an opportunity to fulfill their dream of independence.
Both Baghdad and Washington disapproved of the move, while Iran and Turkey are implacably opposed to it (Asharq al-Awsat, September 22, 2017). The Kurds, however, insisted on holding an independence referendum. The overwhelming majority voted for independence as expected, but there was no way to turn that outcome into a reality (al-Arabiya, September 27, 2017). The Abadi government took advantage of the Kurds’ miscalculations and the regional and U.S. disapproval for the referendum. In a matter of days, Iraqi forces had seized Kirkuk and all the disputed areas that the Kurds controlled after IS expansion (al-Hurra, October 18, 2017).
Seeking Former Glory
Abadi enjoyed a temporary rise in his popularity among both Sunni and Shia communities for his move against the Kurds. It was a rare unifying cause and the Kurds appear to have bowed following their military setback. However, the relations and coordination in the efforts against IS were detrimentally affected. In his comment on the recent IS attacks—many of which took place on the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway, which leads to Kurdistan further north—Abadi accused the Kurds of tipping off IS on the movement of the six victims. He added that with government troops on one side of the Hamrin Mountains and the Kurds on the other, the area had become a no-man’s land which had effectively provided a safe space for IS.  The situation was likely exacerbated by poor coordination and intelligence sharing.
The new pattern of IS operations might indicate that the group has returned to the past tactics of its insurgency in Iraq, but that is not the full picture. Despite the heavy military setbacks, IS remains ambitious. In its propaganda, it aims to build on the legacy of the days when it controlled territory and its fighters occupied cities in Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi government must address the root causes of IS and the possibility of it making another advance. The government should also not assume that the support from the United States, which it frequently calls on, will always be forthcoming. At any rate, military campaigns alone will not be enough to defeat IS, without introducing genuine normalization measures, reconciliation and good governance.