Of­fi­cials say 7,000 Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates re­main in Iraq

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD - BY QASSIM AB­DUL-ZAHRA

High-rank­ing Iraqi security of­fi­cials say up to 7,000 Is­lamic State group af­fil­i­ates re­main in Iraq af­ter the fall of Mo­sul, where the group’s leader de­clared the self-styled caliphate three years ago.

Three in­tel­li­gence and de­fence of­fi­cials also told The As­so­ci­ated Press there are an es­ti­mated 4,000 mil­i­tants and 3,000 sup­port­ers who were em­ployed by the group and re­ceived salaries.

In Syria, there are up to an­other 7,000 IS mil­i­tants and 5,000 sup­port­ers, they say.

The of­fi­cials spoke to the AP on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they are not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia.

On July 10, Iraq’s Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi de­clared the lib­er­a­tion of Mo­sul, af­ter nine months of highly de­struc­tive war­fare. IS swept into Mo­sul in sum­mer 2014 when it con­quered much of north­ern and west­ern Iraq.

The ex­trem­ists de­clared a caliphate and gov­erned ac­cord­ing to a harsh and vi­o­lent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law. The mil­i­tants rounded up their op­po­nents and killed them en masse, of­ten doc­u­ment­ing the mas­sacres with video and pho­tos.

Two days af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion of Mo­sul lib­er­a­tion, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion in Iraq and Syria, cau­tioned that the bat­tle in Iraq is not over. He said he be­lieves Iraqi troops still need time to oust re­main­ing IS fight­ers from Mo­sul. Once that is done, he said, they will prob­a­bly take a break to re­group be­fore launch­ing their fight against the IS in Tal Afar and other re­main­ing in­sur­gent strongholds in west­ern Iraq. IS still con­trols ter­ri­to­ries in parts of Ni­nawa and An­bar gov­er­norates, in Haw­ija in Kirkuk gov­er­norate and in pock­ets else­where.

Last week, Nick Ras­mussen, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, warned that the world still faces threats from IS mil­i­tants de­spite their ter­ri­to­rial losses. He said the Is­lamic State group con­trols less ter­ri­tory, but of­fi­cials still worry that a small num­ber of skilled fight­ers could move out of the re­gion and launch at­tacks in the West or in their home­lands.

In Syria’s Raqqa, IS’s self­pro­claimed cap­i­tal, U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces en­cir­cled the city, breach­ing the for­ti­fied de­fences and mov­ing closer to the heart of the city. Of­fi­cials are pre­dict­ing a long, tough bat­tle, es­ti­mat­ing that more than 2,000 mil­i­tants are holed up with their fam­i­lies and tens of thou­sands of civil­ians in the city’s cen­tre.

Last sum­mer, the Pentagon claimed the mil­i­tary cam­paigns in Iraq and Syria had taken 45,000 en­emy com­bat­ants off the bat­tle­field and re­duced the to­tal num­ber of Is­lamic State fight­ers to about 15,000. In March, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion forces in Iraq and Syria, said U.S. in­tel­li­gence es­ti­mates put the num­ber of IS fight­ers in Iraq and Syria com­bined at 12,000 to 15,000. That was down from an es­ti­mate of 19,000 to 25,000 in Fe­bru­ary 2016 and 20,000 to 31,000 in 2014.

Amid re­ports that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi was killed, Iraqi in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials told The As­so­ci­ated Press that he is still alive.

“We will be re­viv­ing ISIS if we killed Bagh­dadi now,” one of the top of­fi­cials said, adding that the strat­egy is to get rid of pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors first. “We want to crip­ple the group in or­der to end it. We don’t want to give them a win­dow for a come­back.”


In this file photo from 2014, fight­ers from the Is­lamic State group pa­rade in a com­man­deered Iraqi security forces ar­mored ve­hi­cle on the main road at the north­ern city of Mo­sul, Iraq.

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