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Islamic State fighters switch tactics to attack Iraqi cities

Following a string of defeats Islamic State is taking advantage of poor security and corruption to strike Iraqi cities, security sources tell MEE
An Iraqi security officer holds a fake bomb detector at a checkpoint in al-Saadun street in central Baghdad in August 2012. The devices were withdrawn from use this week. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Islamic State fighters are switching their tactics to launch “hit and run” attacks and suicide bombings in Iraq’s cities after being defeated by government security forces in the west of the country, Iraqi security officials have warned.

Government security forces and paramilitary troops re-captured the city of Fallujah, one of the most prominent IS-strongholds in Iraq, in late June with the support of US-led coalition air strikes

Since then, several fatal attacks have targeted Shia areas in and around Baghad, and security officials have told MEE they expect that more attacks are likely as the Islamic State (IS) group alters it tactics and moves away from conventional combat.

Nearly 300 people were killed when a suicide bomber exploded a minibus backed by explosive materials at the entrance of a three-storey shopping mall in Karrada, central Baghdad, on 3 July, while another 40 people were killed on Thursday when three suicide bombers disguised in army uniform detonated themselves just outside a Shia shrine in Balad, a town 80 km north of Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and security analysts say the shift in tactics by the Islamic State group is an attempt to regain the initiative after its loss of Fallujah, the latest in a string of defeats that have seen it lose control of around 60 percent of the territories it seized in Iraq during the past two years.

“After the great victory achieved by our heroic troops in Fallujah, the gang of the terrorist Daesh [an Arabic acronym for IS] is facing a severe defeat … so they start using the coward bombs and targeting civilians to prove that they still exist so they can maintain support and the recruitment,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a televised address on Friday.

The prime minister added: “The terrorist attack in Karrada was a reaction to our outstanding victory in Fallujah.”

Abadi’s comments came as he fired the head of Baghdad’s security and two other senior officials. The three men are the latest officials to be removed in the security services following last weekend’s car bombing, the deadliest bomb attack since 2013. It took place in a busy market just two days before the holy Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitar, as Muslims were celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The sackings follow the resignation of the country’s interior minister, Mohammed Ghabban, on Tuesday. He went amid a wave of public anger and widespread criticism that the Abadi government is unable to ensure security in Baghdad.

Baghdad is still in a state of shock after the Karrada attack, with many of the families of the victims still unable to identify their sons or daughters. Hundreds of people have been flocking to the scene to light candles and pray for the victims. Several volunteer teams are still looking for human remains among the wreckage.

IS claimed responsibility for the Baghdad and Balad attacks, adding that it had intentionally targeted members of the “Rawafidh” community, a derogatory term used by Islamist militants to describe Shias.

Officials in Iraq told MEE that they feared that continued sectarian attacks would only fuel the confict between Iraqi's Shia-dominated security forces and the Sunni community, hampering efforts to bring anti-IS Sunni tribes into the battle against the Islamist militant group.

“Daesh will attack again and again in Baghdad. They went back to adopt the hit and run tactic as it’s easier and its results are guaranteed,” said a senior police officer serving in Baghdad. The officer asked not be named as he is not authorised to give interviews.

“All other cities are in danger now. Daesh needs quick and easy victories that occupy the forefront of attention of the world media. Attacking civilians is the best way to achieve these goals,” the officer told MEE.

“Your corruption is killing us”

For many Iraqis the Karrada attack has highlighted the administrative and financial corruption of the Baghdad government, with many criticising the government over the reported lack of safety measures at the two shopping malls targeted by the explosion and the reported ineffectiveness of the civil defence teams which responded to the blast.

Meanwhile many Iraqis took to social media to campaign against the use of fake explosive detection wands, using the hashtag “Your corruption is killing us” on Twitter.

The British-made wands, which have been in use for the past nine years, were long ago proven to be fake and totally ineffective, but they have continued to be used at security checkpoints across the country.

In the wake of the bombing, Abadi finally demanded the wands’ withdrawal from service and ordered a renewed corruption investigation into the purchase of the devices, which cost the country tens of millions of dollars and netted English businessman James McCormick large profits. An English court in 2013 sentenced McCormick to a 10-year jail term for fraud.

The scandal began in February 2006 when an Iraqi company forwarded an offer to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to supply the British-built device, called ADE650, which was reported to be able to detect explosives and drugs at a distance of 650 metres.

Iraq's interior ministry formed a technical committee to examine the effectiveness of the device and according to a report obtained by MEE claimed: “The device is effective to detect all kinds of portable and buried explosives, improvised explosive devices and personal weapons. It's accurately ranging from 90-95 percent.”

Iraq signed the first contract for £11mn (at the time about $20mn) in January 2007, but within months many Iraqi security bodies and lawmakers were complaining that the detector was useless as dozens of car bombs kept being used in Iraqi streets and killing thousands of people.

However Lieutenant Jihad Luaibi al-Jabiri, the chief of Iraq's Anti-Explosive Squad, insisted on keeping the devices on the street and claimed other members of the security forces “aim to hinder the work of the interior ministry” by attacking the device, according to documents seen by MEE. In one report, he wrote: “The department of Anti-Explosive Squad as a beneficiary side, assured that these devices are the modest and ever best in the world … so we recommend to storage it and keep use it to save the innocent lives.”

Following Jabiri's recommendation, a further five contracts to supply security forces with the detectors were issued, and the total cost of the project reached £75m, according to one Iraqi official.

In January 2010, the British Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced it would ban exports to Iraq and Afghanistan of the ADE650 device, while Iraqi authorities opened an investigation and arrested Jabiri “on corruption charges”.

Jabiri was sentenced to seven years, but the fake detectors were still a regular fixture at checkpoints in Iraq last week, when Abadi ordered their removal after the public outcry.

“Everyone who was killed by car bombs in the last years since the beginning of the use of this device was killed because of this device,” General Hassan al-Bidhani, a former senior officer in Baghdad and a member of a technical committee formed in 2006 to examine the detector, told MEE. “If we account Iraqis who have been killed since then and excluded those killed by other means, then tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed under the umbrella of this device.”  

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.