Baghdad blasts expose gaps in Iraq’s strained military

Baghdad: Twin suicide blasts in Baghdad claimed by Daesh have exposed gaps within Iraq’s security forces, weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, rival armed groups and political tensions.

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At least 32 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the double-tap suicide attack that targeted a commercial district in Baghdad on Thursday.

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It was the deadliest attack in three years in the capital, which has been relatively calm since Daesh’s territorial defeat in late 2017.

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But it has also illustrated accumulating shortfalls in Iraq’s patchwork of security forces, experts said.

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“Daesh isn’t coming back. The fact that this is news shows how good the situation has become compared to the past,” said Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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“But there are some very clear problems in the Iraqi security sector, and this is reflective of that.”

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Following the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s security forces had to be effectively rebuilt from the ground up, relying heavily on training by foreign armies.

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The COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt halt to that.

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Living together at bases with little social distancing, Iraqi troops were some of the country’s first coronavirus victims.

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In March 2020, the US-led coalition announced it was pulling out foreign trainers to stem the pandemic’s spread.

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“The decreased training over the past year because of COVID-19 (created) a gap there,” a top US official in Baghdad told AFP last month.

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It also meant Iraq’s security services had decreased access to the coalition’s communications surveillance – “an early warning system” that was crucial to nipping Daesh attacks in the bud, said Watling.

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‘Gap to exploit’

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Many of those withdrawals became permanent.

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The US-led coalition announced last year that Iraq’s army was capable of fighting IS remnants on its own and pulled out of eight bases across the country.

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At the same time, citing the improving security situation, Baghdad’s authorities lifted the concrete blast walls and checkpoints that had congested the city for years.

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Battle-hardened units were moved out of cities to chase down IS sleeper cells in rural areas, with less-experienced units taking over urban security.

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Security analyst Alex Mello said those rotations combined with less-reliable intelligence may have eventually granted Daesh “a gap to exploit”.

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The US official said Iraqi forces were at times unwilling to tackle IS fighters head-on, allowing small cells to flourish into larger groups.

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One coalition air strike near Mosul in December killed 42 Daesh jihadists – an unusually large number.

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“The senior commanders in Baghdad were extremely pissed at the local forces. They had to know those guys were there,” the US official said.

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But the core challenge may not be technical.

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Iraq’s security forces include army troops, militarised police units and the Hashed Al Shaabi, a network of armed forces incorporated into the state after 2014.

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Many were backed by Iran, which generated a mutual distrust with some forces trained by its arch enemy, the United States.

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Tensions spiked following the US drone strike last year that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief, Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

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“The real strain has been political,” said Watling.

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“During the fight against Daesh, there was a lot of informal information sharing between the Hashed, the coalition and others. That’s just not there anymore, which reduces situational awareness,” he said.

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‘No one is clean’

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Navigating those tensions has been a major challenge for Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi, seen as US-friendly.

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He rose to the premiership in May while retaining his previous post as head of Iraq’s intelligence service.

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Kadhemi has relied heavily on the US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service for a range of missions: hunting down Daesh cells, arresting corrupt officials and even reigning in groups launching rockets on the US embassy.

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Observers say it is because he trusts so few other units.

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But it has also forced the CTS into uncomfortable confrontations with pro-Iran factions that have often ended with the former backing down.

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“Constantly retreating on orders and apologising to the targeted groups only weakens the CTS, the commander-in-chief, and the Iraqi state,” said Marsin Alshamary, a Brookings Institute research fellow.

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Following Thursday’s attack, Kadhemi announced an overhaul of Iraq’s security leadership, including a new federal police commander and chief of the elite Falcons Unit.

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Kadhemi is hoping those changes will not only plug holes that Thursday’s attackers exploited, but could also resolve the deeper issues of trust and coordination.

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But observers were sceptical of how far that could go given widespread graft in Iraq’s security forces.

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“When you’re dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy, no one is clean,” said Watling.

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