On June 2, Iraqi forces launched the second phase of operation ‘Iraqi Heroes,’ a military operation aimed at clearing Islamic State (IS) remnants from areas of southwestern Kirkuk (Kurdistan24, June 4). The Iraqi Security Media Cell stated the operation was a success, as two suspected terrorists were neutralized, and weapons caches, resources and hideouts were seized (al-Monitor, June 4). The first phase of the operation was launched in February, focusing on IS cells in Anbar province.
The joint operation was managed by Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) and involved input from the army, air force, the anti-IS coalition, intelligence agencies, the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and Peshmerga forces (Alkhaleej, June 3). Newly inaugurated Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited Kirkuk during the operation to monitor progress and repeated his intention to force all remaining IS fighters from the area.
The province of Kirkuk is of strategic importance to the central government, not least because of its abundant oil reserves. The area is the site of a long-standing dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), despite the province being in the hands of the central government since 2017, when it was reclaimed from IS control. Security deficiencies intensified by the disputed nature of the province have been exploited by IS. The area near the Sunni heartland of Kirkuk and the wider Hamrin basin is known as the ‘Triangle of Death,’ owing to the presence of IS loyalists and the difficulty in combing the rough terrain for militant refuges (Arab Weekly, May 18). Mountains, valleys, tunnels, and caves in the Hamrin Mountains are used by IS cells as effective hideouts to plan and execute attacks.
IS remnants retain a presence in numerous provinces, including Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Saladin, and Mosul, and the Center for Global Policy estimates there are 3,000-4,000 active fighters in Iraq (Alkhaleej, June 3). Active cells are reverting back to insurgent tactics, using the isolated sanctuaries as staging grounds for ambushes targeting security forces and executions of suspected informants. In recent weeks, militants have been increasingly targeting minority communities in Kirkuk and conducting crop fires during harvest season to extort locals into paying taxes (KirkukNow, June 6).
In late April, IS militants attacked an intelligence bureau in Kirkuk, wounding three Iraqi service personnel—an attack in keeping with the modus operandi of the dispersed insurgents (Asharq Al-Awsat, April 28). In the Hamrin basin area, militants have increased their operational tempo in recent months, but have not demonstrated the inclination or capability to capture population centers. This, however, will be no solace to the residents of Kirkuk who live in fear of IS incursions. A public display of military power demonstrating the ability to curtail IS activity and secure protection for civilians was a key objective of operation Iraqi Heroes.
Fragile Strength, Enduring Divisions
The lack of central military protection was a major catalyst for IS’ capture of territory in northern Iraq during 2014. Operations such as ‘Iraqi Heroes’ are intended to show the resurrected strength of the national Iraqi military and intelligence agencies. Brigadier General Yahya Rasool made clear this was an operation primarily executed by joint domestic forces, despite US-led coalition forces stating intelligence was shared and coalition forces provided air support (Rudaw, June 2). Even the name of the operation is a not-so-subtle nod toward the national-level agencies. While the Iraqi military is trying to demonstrate its strength and capability to build public confidence, the anti-IS coalition forces, primarily the United States, are still trying to justify their continued presence.
The on-ground effectiveness of the Iraqi forces is complicated by geopolitical brinkmanship and a delicate domestic situation. Following widespread protests at the end of 2019 and health and social crises exacerbated by the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the Iraqi forces are stretched in terms of manpower and resources. For years the military has been reliant on international cooperation, especially when countering the IS threat, but UK, French, Canadian, and other coalition members withdrew troops and suspended training programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Middle East Eye, March 25). Despite the structural and domestic challenges, anti-IS clearing operations are an easy propaganda win for the military.
Hostility between the United States and Iran is influencing defense strategy across Iraq, including the anti-IS operations. Tehran has been attempting to infiltrate all aspects of political control in Iraq for years, and the influence of the PMU within the Iraqi military is growing. Reports indicate PMU leaders have increasingly been restricting the movement of U.S. ground troops. PMU leaders are positioning for inclusion in key talks between Iraq and the United States about the latter’s continued in-country presence. Their seat at the table gives Iran an opportunity to lobby for the total withdrawal of U.S. troops (Jerusalem Post, June 8). U.S. forces have been withdrawing from areas of strategic importance at an expedited rate: the K1 Air Base and Qayyarah Airfield West in Kirkuk have already been handed over to Iraqi forces (Asharq Al-Awsat, March 30).
The overlapping agendas of numerous actors have proved a distraction from conventional military efforts to counter the terrorist threat. Despite this, the removal of IS remnants is one of the few strategic goals where the agendas of all involved parties converge. Operation ‘Iraqi Heroes’ is a display of strength meant to demonstrate the Iraqi military is able to protect the lives of its citizens without significant international assistance. IS cells will remain elusive, militants are adept at surviving in remote hideouts, and sweeps of the Hamrin Mountains are notoriously difficult to conduct. Insurgent attacks are highly likely to continue in Kirkuk and surrounding provinces, and with the multiplicity of issues impacting the Iraqi forces, no definitive victory against IS is forthcoming.