For the first time since the defeat of Daesh, Mosul is hit by a bomb. The Iraqi government is getting ready for a fight, but internal disagreements and Daesh's changing tactics could mean that it might not be an easy task.
“Honourable Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated. The dream of liberation is now a reality.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced the final victory over Daesh in a televised address on December 6, 2017.
As the country began rebuilding itself from scratch, Daesh indicated it was making a brutal comeback with kidnappings, assassinations and low-scale bomb attacks in the desert areas.
Almost a year after Abadi's victory announcement, a car bomb hit Mosul, once the so-called caliphate of Daesh, for the first time since the city was retaken.
Finally, on November 6 this year, the Iraqi army deployed 30,000 troops to the border with Syria following concerns that Daesh could withdraw to Iraq from Syria as a result of the US-led coalition’s operations in the war-torn country.
But according to a report by the UN, up to 30,000 Daesh members are already still active in Iraq and Syria.
The first fight against Daesh wasn't smooth as Iraqi government estimated. Reclaiming Mosul took nine months of urban warfare.
When Daesh swept through Mosul in June 2014, too weak to fight, the Iraqi army left the city within a couple of hours without fighting.
Later, a US-led coalition along with Peshmerga forces and the Hashd al Shaabi, an Iran-backed and Shia-dominated Iraqi militia also known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), became the main tool in the fight against Daesh.
Hussam Botani, the Chief Analyst at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies, says the fight against Daesh won’t be an easy task for the Iraqi government due to issues such as disagreements about the Hashd al Shaabi forces and a Daesh now fighting with a different mindset.
Still a controversy: Hashd al Shaabi forces
“There are some disagreements going on between Shaabi and the Iraqi army. Because Hashd al Shaabi forces asked for a new budget and the new government is not able to afford to increase the budget,” Botani tells TRT World.
Hashd al Shaabi has been fighting alongside the Iraqi army since 2014, as an independent voluntary group. But the group began taking salaries from the Iraqi government in 2016, when legislation was passed formally recognising the group as part of the army.
Before the legislation, the group was desperate for any kind of combat support on the ground. The Iraqi government has supported Hashd al Shaabi mobilisation since its foundation, despite human rights groups accusing the group of extrajudicial killings, torture, imprisonment and the forced eviction of Sunni Iraqis.
Their involvement in Iraqi politics became a matter of debate during Iraqi elections, when a prominent Hashd al Shaabi commander and leader of Badr organisation, Hadi al Ameri formed the Al Fatah alliance with three other Shia groups, in a bid to enter parliament.
“The Iraqi army began getting back on its feet at the end of Abadi’s term,” Botani says.
However, the group’s indirect involvement in Iraqi politics never stopped being a matter of controversy within the Iraqi government - especially the fact that the group’s leader remained the same after its legalisation.
Despite officially being a part of the Iraqi army, the army’s overall responsibilities, including accountability on military actions don’t apply to the group. "This is causing uncontrolled arms usage in Iraq,” says Botani.
The US also raised concerns over the influence of Iranian-backed groups in the fight after the Iraqi government asked Shia factions to coordinate with the army to protect the border.
According to Mustafa Habib, an analyst on Iraqi politics, there are two reasons for that.
“Firstable (sic), difficulty of dealing with Shia factions in administration of operations, especially the US role is based on providing intelligence info that may reach Shia factions which already allied with other Shia factions in Syria, Iran may get this info,” Habib wrote on Twitter.
Firstable, difficulty of dealing with Shiite factions in administration of operations, especially the US role is based on providing intelligence info that may reach to Shiite factions which already allied with other Shiite factions in Syria, Iran may get this info (6)— Mustafa Habib (@Mustafa_Habib33) October 30, 2018
“Second, the worried of ambitions of Shia factions close to Iran, which aspire to open the road between Iran and Syria through Iraq, this threatens US forces in Anbar and its plan to prevent Iran of opening this road since 2014.”
Daesh’s change of tactics: A two-pronged plan
After Daesh lost its territories to the Iraqi army, it withdrew to remote areas away from Iraq’s cities, limiting most of its attacks to sparsely populated areas. But recent attacks have become deadlier and more apparent.
A recent suicide bombing targeted a restaurant on the road between the northern towns of Tikrit and Baiji, killing three and injuring 34 - marking the deadliest attack claimed by the terrorist group since their July defeat in Mosul.
“That’s for a cause,” Botani says. “The group has adapted a two-pronged plan since their so-called caliphate has fallen.”
It still carries out its activities in the cities, where the Iraqi army is powerful, but does so secretly.
“Once they feel superior to the Iraqi army, they will start attacking the cities again as well,” explains Botani.
On the other hand, their activities in the deserts and remote areas are more daring, knowing that the Iraqi army is not strong enough to carry out the fight both in the deserts and cities.
Daesh’s aim in 2014, when they captured Mosul, was to create a “state” and expand its territories as much as possible. At its height, it controlled 40 percent of Iraq, and 98 percent of that territory was taken back, according to the US.
Botani says: “They want to go back to where they were in 2014.” But they are aware of the difficulty in gaining complete power once again, so this time have a different mindset.
“Daesh now has switched to the idea of proceeding as an insurgent group rather than focusing establishing a state,” Botani says.
“That’s why Baghdad is trying to get ready for this possible encounter with Daesh, but it won’t be an easy task for the Iraqi army.”