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Cautious Optimism Over Efforts to Combat ISIS in Baghdad


The site of a Baghdad blast that killed more than 300 people in July, one of the deadliest car bombings in Iraq in over a decade. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In July, the Islamic State carried out one of the deadliest car bombings in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003, killing more than 300 people in Baghdad.

The Pentagon responded by rushing a three-star general to the capital to offer the Iraqi authorities new technology, tactics and advisers to help thwart additional attacks. And in the weeks before the current Iraqi push to reclaim Mosul, the American-led air campaign against the militant group redoubled its strikes on car bombs and car-bomb factories.

So far, the strategy has worked. The threat by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to retaliate for the Mosul assault with crippling car bombings in Baghdad has been largely neutralized. Such bombings, military officials fear, could terrorize the capital and unleash a new spiral of violence, undermine the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and pressure it to divert troops to defend Baghdad.

“There’s no silver bullet or magic machine,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who was the top American military commander in Iraq until August, said about the need to combine tactics, technology and intelligence to identify and combat car bombs. “The enemy is adaptive, and we need to be adaptive, too.”

But given the long history of terrorism in Baghdad, the efforts have not completely quieted the worries of Iraqi officials. “We don’t deny that we still have fears that they will target Baghdad, especially from the outskirts of Baghdad,” said Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. “ISIS is still there, although less so because of our intelligence efforts.”

Immediately after the July attack, Mr. Abadi announced a series of new security measures, most prominently an order that the Iraqi police and soldiers stop using bomb detectors sold by a British company that were determined to be fake. The wandlike devices had been used for years at Baghdad’s checkpoints and were derided by a public that was angered by the government’s inability to protect its citizens.

At the same time, Lt. Gen. Michael H. Shields, the head of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Threat-Defeat Organization, brought to Baghdad several military bomb squad experts and other technical advisers to help train Iraqis on a range of skills to harden the capital’s defenses against huge bombs carried by cars and trucks. General Shields also studied new ways to combat the Islamic State’s growing fleet of exploding drones.

Since then, Americans and Iraqis have worked closely to set up layers of checkpoints, using new X-ray devices in the inspections. The Iraqi authorities are honing their skills in finding, defusing and destroying various explosive devices. Intelligence networks were bolstered, as was aerial surveillance, using drones and manned aircraft.

In and around Mosul, American and allied warplanes have destroyed nearly three dozen car bombs in the three weeks since the offensive began — bombs that could have been used against advancing Iraqi forces or been driven south to Baghdad. They have also wiped out about a dozen car-bomb factories around Mosul and other northern Iraqi towns.

General Tahseen, the Ministry of Defense spokesman, said that since the bombing in July, the United States had made a priority of working more closely with Iraqi intelligence agencies to blunt the Islamic State’s ability to target Baghdad. He said the United States had given the Iraqi government more equipment, such as surveillance drones, and had shared more intelligence.

He also said that an Islamic State cell in Diyala Province, which had been responsible for many attacks in Baghdad, was recently destroyed with the help of the Americans. The siege on Mosul, which has kept the terrorists busy defending the city, has also, at least temporarily, reduced the number of attacks in Baghdad.

Part of the planning for the fall of Mosul involves stepped-up security around Baghdad in anticipation that the Islamic State will lash out in the capital, General Tahseen said. Saad al-Mutalbi, a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council’s security committee, echoed the general, saying, “I expect Baghdad to be targeted once ISIS loses Mosul.”

Indeed, even with all the protective measures around Baghdad, and the increased targeting of car bombs, the capital has hardly been immune to violence, although nothing on the scale of the July bombing has occurred since.

On Oct. 30, a parked car bomb exploded in Huriya, a neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad, killing at least 10 people and wounding 34. The bombing, which hit a popular fruit and vegetable market in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood, was the fifth such explosion in the capital that day.

Despite the smaller bombings, a general sense of calm has enveloped the streets of Baghdad in the months since the July attack. While Iraqis are nervous that it will not last, many said they now had more confidence in the government’s ability to prevent attacks, a sentiment that has rarely been heard in Baghdad in recent years.

“We feel much better because there are fewer explosions,” said Labid Ahmed, 23. “The situation will be very good after Mosul is liberated, and I think that the explosions have been reduced because of the security checkpoints, and also intelligence is playing a role in this.”

“ISIS has become broken and defeated,” said Shahab Ahmed, 29, who works in a grocery store. “I don’t think ISIS will be able to carry out attacks if they lose Mosul, because the security forces are fully ready to deal with any situation.”

Murtada Majid Muhsin, who works at a clothing shop in the capital, said: “I feel kind of better. But I am still afraid of explosions.” He said many of his customers quickly found what they wanted and left, preferring not to linger.

Source: NYT > World

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