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Iraq faces vast challenges despite victories over Daesh — experts

By AFP - Sep 04,2017 - Last updated at Sep 04,2017

BAGHDAD —  Iraq's victory over the Daesh terror group in Tal Afar was the latest in a string of gains against the extremist group, but Iraqi forces still face massive challenges, experts say.

In 2014, as Daesh staged a rapid advance across northern Iraq, police and military personnel abandoned their posts to the extremists with barely a fight.

That allowed the group to establish its "caliphate" across parts of Syria and a third of Iraq's territory including second city Mosul.

Today, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, who took office three months after the 2014 military debacle, says the Iraqi state is back, stronger and better organised.

Under the Shiite premier's command and backed by a US-led multinational coalition, Iraqi forces have retaken Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and in July, after a gruelling nine-month battle, Mosul.

On Thursday, Abadi announced the recapture of the town of Tal Afar and surrounding areas, bringing the whole of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, under government control.

"Our battle plans are now being taught in military academies, including tactics for urban guerrilla warfare and demining," said Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan.

Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander of the US-led coalition, praised Iraqi forces for their achievements.

"The fight would have challenged almost any army in the world. The fact that the Iraqis could do it has given their security forces additional confidence," he told AFP.

"They have shown themselves to be capable to manoeuvre against Daesh in all locations in Iraq."

 During the fight for Mosul, described by an American general in Baghdad as "the toughest urban battle since World War II", Iraqi troops suffered heavy losses.

But they have now forced Daesh out of all its Iraqi territories except the town of Hawija, 300 kilometres  north of Baghdad, and a few pockets of territory near the border with Syria.

In doing so, they have repaired some of the damage done three years ago and regained "the confidence of their fellow citizens and internationally", said Jassem Hanoun, an Iraqi military expert.


'Not the end' 


Coalition officials say Iraqi-led decision making and better sharing of intelligence between Baghdad and the US-led coalition have allowed for quicker, more targeted attacks.

But Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al Jafari warned on August 26 that "victory in Iraq will not mean an end to the danger posed by Daesh".

He said Iraq would continue its military cooperation with the coalition, saying it needed "preventive security" against "terrorist cells working in the shadows".

Hanoun said Daesh would likely go back to its "original mode of operation", attacking targets such as residential districts and markets.

But a lack of coordination and organisation means the security services struggle to cope with such attacks, he said.

The question of whether and how the coalition will continue to operate in Iraq is a hot political topic both for Baghdad and for Washington, which in 2011 finally withdrew its troops eight years after leading an invasion of the country.

Abadi's cooperation with the US poses a pressing dilemma: what will become of the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary coalition, key to the fight against Daesh but dominated by Shiite militias backed by Iran?

 Most Shiite leaders call for the Hashed, currently under the command of the prime minister, to remain in its current form.

But paramilitary groups have played a problematic role in Iraqi politics as far back as the 1930s, according to Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

The Hashed "is only the most recent version of a national politico-security configuration that has been combined with a sectarian component since 2003", he said.

The Iraq specialist said the Hashed's existence was an "admission of the failure of an army trained by US administrations at great financial and material cost over 14 years".

Experts say alleged abuses both by government and Hashed fighters battling Daesh will complicate efforts to regain the confidence of Iraq's Sunni minority, marginalised and out of power since the 2003 fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.

On top of the sectarian question, Iraq faces another challenge to its national unity: a referendum on independence for its autonomous Kurdish region, set for September 25.

The US and coalition members are strongly opposed to the poll, saying it could distract from the fight against Daesh.

Baghdad is also set to hold provincial and parliamentary elections in spring 2018, posing a test for Abadi.

The premier has "made the success of the military campaign a selling point as a way to prove his 'reforms' are working", said Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics.

But Abadi's campaign could suffer from low oil prices, which have hit the Iraqi state's coffers hard.


Sowell said that "as the election will not be held sooner than next April or May, by then the lousy economy could weigh more heavily on voters' minds" than this summer's military victories.

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