SAMARRA, Iraq: The Iraqi province of Salahaddin declared three days of mourning starting Sunday over a deadly attack blamed on Daesh, as some authorities criticized authorities for failing to retaliate against militants.
Late on Saturday, a roadside bomb hit a civilian car on an open road near Mt. Makhoul, about 200 km north of Baghdad, said police and a local official.
When security forces arrived at the scene, activists opened fire on them, police said.
The attack killed at least six Iraqi security personnel and four civilians, one of whom died of his injuries overnight, according to local medics.
There were no claims from Daesh, but the local mayor and police blamed the group, which the Iraqi government said in late 2017 it had defeated.
This victory came after three years of brutal fighting to wrest a third of Iraqi territory that had been captured by Daesh.
Although the militants no longer hold any territory, sleeper cells are carrying out criminal attacks on state infrastructure, especially in desert areas north of the capital.
Two weeks ago, 11 people were killed in an Daesh attack on an observation post in Al-Radwaniyah on the outskirts of Baghdad.
According to a study released this month by the International Counterterrorism Center in The Hague, the extremist group claimed responsibility for more attacks in Iraq than in any other country where it was active between December 2018 and May of this year.
The study indicated that Daesh’s activity in Iraq “accelerated precipitously from February 2020”, reaching levels “strangely close” to those that preceded its sweeping over a third of Iraq in 2014. Yet the death toll remains low. Daesh in Iraq “generally seems to move from a phase of (re) construction to a phase characterized by brazen guerrilla-type attacks”, notes the study.
The attacks coincided with a new campaign by Iraqi security forces to stop jihadists hiding in rugged terrain in the north and west of the country.
In fact, just a day before the attack, Iraqi Federal Police Chief Jaafar Al-Batat told state media that the area around Mt. Makhoul had been freed.
“The incidents perpetrated by IS (Daesh) in some remote areas are isolated cases and now under control,” he said.
This scandalized local personalities. “The Iraqi security forces have just assured us that this area has been cleaned,” Mashaan Al-Jaboury, an MP representing Salahaddin, wrote on Twitter after the violence on Saturday evening.
For Jamal Al-Dhari, another Sunni personality writing on Twitter, the latest ambush “highlights the repeated failures of the fight against terrorism”.
“The government (of Prime Minister) Mustafa Al-Kadhemi seriously needs to put in place a national strategy … and stop being satisfied with ‘committees of inquiry’,” Dhari said.
Iraqis regularly mock their government for setting up investigative bodies that fail to deliver results.
The tensions arise as the US-led coalition, which has helped Iraq fight Daesh from 2014, cuts its troops.
This year, the United States has already reduced its contribution to the coalition from 5,200 to some 3,000 troops, with other countries also downsizing.
The United States announced last week that it would withdraw an additional 500 troops by mid-January, which Iraqi officials say is the fourth and final phase of the coalition’s withdrawal.
The main US commander for the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said progress made by Iraqi security forces in recent years has enabled the United States to withdraw.
The troops that remained in Iraq would focus on training local forces, carrying out airstrikes in support of their operations, and drone surveillance in the country.
The US military presence remains a source of controversy.
The Iraqi parliament voted in January to oust all foreign troops, following a US drone strike on Baghdad that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a prominent Iraqi paramilitary commander.
Al-Kadhemi, whose government is seen to be US-oriented, has slowed down implementation.
Pro-Iranian factions have staged a series of rallies in recent months to call on Al-Kadhemi to implement the move.
“If you don’t go alone, our rockets will force you out!” a sign during a recent protest reading.
He was referring to dozens of rocket attacks on Western diplomatic and military facilities since October 2019.
The United States has threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad unless the rocket attacks cease.