“His killing has not weakened the ability of ISIS to operate,” Barzani said, using an acronym for the militant group, pointing to the ability of local cells to operate independently of the central leadership. “They have not stopped recruiting more people, they have not stopped attacking,” he added.
Barzani’s warnings come against the background of his government’s efforts to urge the United States to find a way to maintain a troop presence in Iraq, amid political backlash in Baghdad over the Trump administration’s targeted killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil last month.
Soleimani’s slaying — which was precipitated by the death of an American contractor in an attack on an Iraqi military base hosting U.S. troops — escalated tensions in the region. Speaking at the security conference Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the American action had worked in Iran’s favor by increasing Iraqi discontent with the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. “Martyr Soleimani is much more effective than General Soleimani,” he said.
NATO said this week that it will pick up some of the training activities in Iraq currently run by the U.S.-led coalition, but details of exact troop reorganization and numbers have not been worked out.
“The militaries of the coalition and NATO will coordinate and determine how we can expand NATO’s efforts to support the Iraqi security services,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said at a security summit on Friday.
“It is imperative that we maintain unrelated pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, just as we hope the Iraqis to do so in the long term,” he said.
Although Iraq’s security forces are taking the lead on fighting the group, Iraqi and U.S. military officials say that coalition intelligence and aerial support remains crucial to the overall effort.
Iraq announced earlier this month that the coalition had resumed operations alongside the country’s security forces, following a brief suspension in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. Western officials, along with some Iraqi officials, had raised concerns over the possibility that ISIS militants might take advantage of any disruption in the capacities arrayed against it.
Since the fall of their caliphate last year, the Islamist militants have been mustering in ungoverned spaces that security forces struggle to penetrate — in Syria they are lying low in the desert, officials say. In Iraq, the largest group appears to be concentrated in the no man’s land between Kurdish security forces and those from federal Iraq.
Kurdish commanders put the number of fighters there as high as 3,000, while the U.S. military believes it is closer to 500, operating in small cells and without close coordination.
For the most part, their attacks have been small-scale, using rudimentary explosives, or taking opportunistic potshots at security forces as they pass.
Barzani said that Islamic State attacks now exceed 60 a month, according to the regional government’s figures. “Now they are more acting as insurgents and as, you know, covert operations and mainly just trying to blend in,” he said. The coalition said earlier this month that the number of attacks claimed by the Islamic State in the final months of 2019 had roughly halved when compared to figures from the previous quarter. But it was unclear how many attacks the coalition had recorded in the opening months of 2020.
Asked whether Baghdadi’s slaying had been seen to impact Islamic State morale, Barzani said “maybe at the beginning.”
“But we haven’t seen any major change,” he said.
The Kurdish leader said he hoped that Washington and Baghdad can work out a mechanism for troop numbers to be maintained. “Anything that would allow and would permit the presence of this forces in the region, which we believe is essential in combating terrorism,” he said. The presence of European forces are “very much tied with the presence of the United States,” he said.
On Soleimani’s killing Barzani said that “any sort of escalation of tension in the area is not helping the stability.” “We hope that all sides will think about de-escalating the confrontation and focus on fighting terrorism in the area, which should be the priority,” he said.
Souad Mekhennet in Munich contributed to this report. Loveluck reported from London.