Iraqi PM orders 'unconventional methods' to stop IS attacks / Shelly Kittleson
A large ‘martyr’s photo’ has been placed outside the headquarters of the Ali al-Akbar Brigade in this southern Shia-dominant city in commemoration of one of the group’s unit commanders, who was killed farther north in the Diyala governorate in late November in an Islamic State attack.

The Ali al-Akbar Brigade is part of the country’s official, government-salaried Popular Mobilization Units.

As the traditional Islamic 40 days of mourning for the man continue, so do attacks in both Diyala and neighboring Kirkuk. Multiple members of the country’s security forces have been killed.

Three Iraqi army soldiers were killed in an attack in the Kirkuk governorate late in the evening of Dec. 21, a security source in Kirkuk contacted by Al-Monitor on Dec. 22 said. It was the third deadly IS attack in a week in the two provinces.

No news of the attack had been published by the Iraqi government-linked Security Media Cell by the time of publication.

Meanwhile, a major operation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has resulted in the arrest of dozens of alleged IS fighters and organizers, including one tasked with recruiting Kurdish fighters for the international terrorist organization.

The Iraqi prime minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces Mohammed Shia al-Sudani chaired a meeting Dec. 21, in Baghdad on the recent security developments in these two governorates, Diyala and Kirkuk.

According to a statement issued by his office, Sudani ordered commanders to “change the military tactics used in the areas where there are remnants of the terrorist gangs and to adopt unconventional methods of fighting in a way that weakens [IS] terrorist gangs' capabilities and limits their movement.”

He also notably ordered “all commanders and leaders to be present in the field in the operations sectors, to be close to their officers and their soldiers, to work to raise their morale.”

In mid-November, Al-Monitor was told by a Syrian contact who cannot be named for security reasons that “hundreds” of IS fighters had crossed from Syria into Iraq in recent weeks. He said that most were headed for Kirkuk governorate, which he claimed was under the command of a "wali" known as Abu Yahia.

A few days later, on Nov. 19, four Iraqi soldiers were killed in an attack attributed to IS in this governorate. Local media outlets reported that the soldiers’ bodies had been beheaded.

Security forces questioned by Al-Monitor in December about the origins of suicide attackers involved in attacks in recent weeks in the country said that investigations were ongoing and that it was not clear whether the attackers were Iraqi and whether they had ever been in Syria.

However, the international terrorist organization remains largely controlled by Iraqi nationals, according to multiple sources contacted by Al-Monitor in Syria and Iraq.

An Iraqi officer for the central government operating in the area of the recent attacks contacted by Al-Monitor in August said then that a small IS group there was believed to be led by a man known as Abu Adnan al-Kurdi, a Kurd from the Kifri area of Diyala governorate.

A Peshmerga officer had claimed at that time to Al-Monitor that there was a new IS formation active in Iraq known as the “Salahhuddin” unit, which “belongs to Iran” and for which Kurds are being recruited. The unit was operating in the Kirkuk and Diyala governorates and around Tuz Khurmato in Salahuddin governorate, he said.

Peshmerga commandos on an anti-IS operation near this area in October were hit by an explosive device that left several members of the forces injured and dead.

The top commander of the Unit 70 Peshmerga commandos, affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, died in late December of wounds sustained in the October blast. He had told Al-Monitor in an interview at his base near Sulaimaniyah in late 2020 that “initially Unit 70 had welcomed many foreign fighters from Western countries and later went on to receive training from the US Marines and then the Navy SEALs,” and that he had been living in the United States but that, when the war against IS began in 2014, he had decided to return to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iraqi news outlet Al-Ain cited a statement issued Dec. 21 by the Sulaimaniyah Asayish security directorate, reporting, “The security authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq revealed that they thwarted a large plan to establish a so-called ‘emirate’ for the terrorist organization” IS in Sulaimaniyah governorate.

The operation resulted in the arrest of 54 people and “the killing of three others," including the detention of the “emir” of the cell, local media reported.

One of the men arrested claimed that he had joined IS in 2015 and fought in the Hamrin mountains but had more recently been tasked by IS to “attract the Kurdish brothers to facilitate their migration" to the areas in which IS retains a presence, according to a video containing the confessions of some of those arrested. The confessions were recorded by the Asayish.

The Iraqi Security Media cell reported on Dec. 22 that in “coordination with the Anti-Terrorism Service in Sulaimaniyah governorate and the Joint Operations Command,” five “terrorists” wanted by the Iraqi intelligence agency had been arrested.

Most of the attacks attributed to IS in recent weeks have occurred in areas of the two governorates that the Dec. 21 security meeting chaired by the prime minister focused on: Diyala and Kirkuk, which are located between Sulaimaniyah and Baghdad. Both include areas claimed by both the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Security gaps due to these competing territorial claims continue to be problematic, as is the terrain itself with the presence of the Hamrin mountains, notorious for decades for being a favored hideout for insurgents. The Hamrin mountains run from near the Iranian border in Diyala to the border between the Kirkuk and Salahuddin governorates.

Al-Monitor

Reporter's code: 50101