MAKESHIFA, IRAQ (NYTIMES) – The assailants came at dusk, creeping on foot through the dusty palm groves near the Tigris River, armed only with a rocket-propelled grenade, a light machine gun and Kalashnikovs. They had laid roadside bombs to kill anyone who rushed to help the unsuspecting local guards, who were in their sights.
When the attack on the village last month was over, nine members of a Sunni tribe that had opposed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were dead, and four were wounded, one of them nearly burned to death.
This is ISIS in Iraq in 2020: low-tech, low-cost, rural, but still lethal. And while it has not carried out attacks on the scale that it did a few years ago, the number of attacks has begun to grow again.
As US and Iraqi negotiators begin a new round of strategic talks on Thursday (June 11), the question of how to respond to ISIS’s quiet resurgence – and how much US help is required to do so – will be at the centre of the discussion.
There are currently about 5,200 US troops in Iraq, whose main missions are counter-terrorism and training Iraqi forces.
The Trump administration, which sees the US presence as crucial for tamping down the resurgence of ISIS and as a bulwark against Iranian power in Iraq, wants to keep a substantial force there.
“We’re going to continue to maintain forces as long as the Iraqi government is willing to have US and coalition forces present in the country until the enduring defeat of Daesh is accomplished, and it’s not yet accomplished,” Mr James Jeffrey, the US special envoy to the region, said in a briefing on Friday, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “That’s our policy.”
But there has been pressure on both sides to reduce the US military presence.
Congress has increasingly questioned the continued American troop presence in Iraq.
The Pentagon is reluctant to keep more than the absolute minimum of troops there because they have been attacked by Iranian-backed militias.
An attack on an Iraqi base in March killed three soldiers of the US-led military coalition in Iraq, two of them Americans, and wounded 14.
Since then, the military has consolidated its troops on fewer bases. Separately, the training mission has been suspended for the last few months because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Pentagon officials believe they can do the job with roughly half the current force and have plans to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to 2,500-3,000, but have no fixed numbers or timetable.
Other members of the 29-country US-led military coalition have already cut their numbers in half, to about 1,200 troops, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the Iraqi side, the country’s Parliament, furious over the US airstrikes in Iraq that killed an Iranian military leader and several Iraqi officials, passed a resolution in January demanding the withdrawal of American forces.
On Monday, the influential nationalist Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on the United States to withdraw and end its “aggressive and highhanded behaviour toward the world”.
The Iraqi government has not acted on the parliamentary resolution, which was non-binding, and the Iraqi military is reluctant to have the US troops leave altogether.
While the Iraqis say they can do the fighting on the ground themselves, they say they still need help in reconnaissance, air support and training.
The talks starting on Thursday, which last occurred in 2018, will touch on “all strategic issues between our two countries”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing them in April, including the presence of the US forces and “how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq”.
But hovering over the discussion is a third country, Iran, which wields powerful influence in Iraq that the United States wants to see reduced.
The United States would like to see diminished economic ties between Iraq and Iran, and less Iranian influence over the Iraqi security forces, while Iraq would like stronger guarantees that the US will not provoke a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil.
The two countries came perilously close to war after the US airstrike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, at the Baghdad airport in January.
In addition to discussion of the US military presence, the strategic talks, which will be conducted online and are expected to continue for several months, will also cover energy and the economy.
The Americans want to help expand Iraq’s oil and gas industry, at least partly to help wean Iraq off Iranian energy.
Iraq, which has the world’s fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves, often relies on Iran for gas and electricity.
The Iraqi purchases help undermine the US sanctions, which are aimed at placing “maximum pressure” on Iran to force it to accept a new nuclear agreement and meet other US demands.
A priority for all three countries is eradicating ISIS, a Sunni terrorist group that at its peak controlled territory the size of Britain straddling Iraq and Syria.
A four-year battle by a combination of US, Kurdish and Iranian-backed forces drove ISIS from the territory, leading President Donald Trump to declare victory over the group last year.
The battlefield losses decimated its command and control and sharply reduced its attacks in Iraq and Syria.
But the attacks began to rebound over the last year and have increased steadily since the middle of 2019, according to data compiled by Dr Michael Knights and Mr Alex Almeida of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The US is looking in the wrong place if they are looking for the attacks we saw in 2014, if they are looking for mass casualties in cities, but the fact that ISIS hasn’t done that is a choice,” Dr Knights said.
In addition to small-scale attacks, ISIS is “trying to create rural bastions”, he said.
Mr Jeffrey, the special envoy to the region, agreed that the ISIS “remains a resilient and significant threat”.
“Given the history of ISIS, also given the history of the organisation that spawned ISIS initially, Al-Qaeda with 9/11, everybody should be careful and cautious and on their guard to simply write off a terrorist movement with the pedigree of ISIS,” he told reporters in Washington last week.
ISIS is reestablishing itself in the largely Sunni areas where it began 17 years ago, in the provinces of Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk and Nineveh.
The first targets were remote police or militia checkpoints and targeted killings of low-level local officials who refused to cooperate with ISIS demands.
As Iraqi security forces were diverted to help enforce curfews and lockdowns to control the coronavirus this year, ISIS gained more freedom to operate.
Perhaps more than other Iraqis, those living in areas where ISIS is re-establishing itself want the US military to stay.
Sheikh Shaalan al-Karim, a former member of Parliament and a senior figure in the tribe that was attacked by ISIS in the village of Makeshifa last month, says that the Iraqi government cannot combat ISIS alone.
He said families with ties to ISIS who had been banned from returning were paying bribes to come back to their homes in the area.
But the biggest problem, he said, is how Sunni Muslims, the minority religious group in Iraq, are treated by the Shi’ite-dominated government.
The battle against ISIS devastated many Sunni areas. Sons and brothers of ISIS fighters who were killed or imprisoned are looking for revenge.
Sunni families who were marginally supportive of ISIS are often treated with suspicion, have trouble getting jobs and some then are drawn back to ISIS for financial reasons.
Much of the policing in al-Karim’s Sunni area of Salahuddin province is overseen by Shi’ite militias.
“If we put ISIS and the militias on a scale,” he said, “they are the same because ISIS kills and steals and blows up innocent people, and in return the militias do the same thing. ISIS has the Sunni cover, and the militias have the Shi’ite cover.”
“The American presence in Iraq is very important, and not only in these areas but for the whole of Iraq, and as for Salahuddin province, we hope for the American presence today, not tomorrow.”