Post-ISIS Security Pitfalls Lurk in a Small Town Near Baghdad

The town of Tarmiyah near Baghdad encapsulates the challenges of relying on Shiite militias to clear ISIS cells in a Sunni community

Post-ISIS Security Pitfalls Lurk in a Small Town Near Baghdad
A US Black Hawk helicopter flies over the palm groves in Baghdad, 2007/Roslan Rahman//AFP via Getty Images

Lush palm groves and fish farms dot Tarmiyah, just over 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad and long known for its Salafist tendencies and its intractability.

A counterterrorism operation involving the Iraqi army and local and nonlocal armed forces in this Sunni tribal heartland began at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 to root out Islamic State group (ISIS) operatives. It managed to kill five alleged jihadists in the town of around 90,000 inhabitants but also rekindled long-standing concerns about a possible encroachment of Shiite-led armed factions into this part of the “Baghdad belt.”

Shiite-led forces, some of which are part of the government-salaried Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have played a major role in the fight against ISIS. However, certain factions, including ones that took part in the operation, have long-standing links with Iran and openly state they are part of the Iran-led “resistance” and are engaged in a religious “jihad.” Others are more nationalistic in their rhetoric or are linked to Iraqi shrines and see Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as their leader.

Tarmiyah encapsulates a security predicament in Iraq today, especially after the officially announced defeat of ISIS in the country in late 2017: Though ISIS cells undeniably continue to operate there as well as in some other Sunni-dominant areas, the use of forces linked to Shiite armed groups, which have been accused in recent years of sectarian-based human rights abuses, to conduct operations in Sunni-majority areas aggravates fears of “ethnic cleansing.”

This problem is paramount in strategically located towns. Tarmiyah is generally referred to as part of “northern Baghdad,’’ but it is officially in the southern part of Salah al-Din province. Tarmiyah sits at a strategic point between two main roads running north from the capital: one road leads to Kirkuk and the other to Tikrit. Sect-based sensitivities are strong in this area for historical reasons. Rumors of plans to displace local Sunni inhabitants using the pretext of “ensuring security for the capital” have cropped up periodically in recent years, with some claiming that one tactic is to cut down palm groves to take away inhabitants’ livelihoods.

Many local Sunni communities are wary of Shiite-led PMF from the south. Others requested help from them after their land was taken by ISIS in 2014, when assistance was not available elsewhere and requests for help from foreign countries were ignored, such as in some areas of Salah al-Din province.

The Feb. 20 counterterrorism operation notably left four members of the Iraqi armed forces dead. Three were locals from an al-Obaidi Sunni tribal unit and one was from the army: The number of losses within the forces involved in the operation and the jihadists they were targeting was almost equal.

ISIS published photos of weapons it allegedly captured from Iraqi forces during the operation. Some reports stated an Iraqi F-16 had been damaged by ISIS ground fire, injuring the pilot. Newlines was unable to verify these claims.

Iraqi military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Faiz al-Mamouri told Iraqi media that two key ISIS leaders were among the five killed and that the operation had been planned and executed thanks to information that had proven accurate from sources inside Tarmiyah. Baghdad operations commander Maj. Gen. Ahmed Salim told local journalists that the military and administrative head of ISIS in northern Baghdad had been killed as well as the head of ISIS media for the town of Fallujah in nearby Anbar province.

The dominant tribe in the area is the Mashhadani. The head of the Mashhadani tribe told me in 2018 that he now lives in Baghdad and can only return to Tarmiyah under cover and for short periods because of risks to his security.

Several top-level leaders of both al Qaeda and ISIS were from the Mashhadani tribe, including Khalid al-Mashhadani, who was the high-ranking member of al Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) when he was arrested in 2007.

The tribe has a significant presence in some areas of the Sunni-majority Anbar province as well. Prominent politician Mohammed al-Karbouli, whose Karabla clan also has a major presence in Anbar, especially near the border, tweeted about the Feb. 20 operation that “once again, the blood of the Tarmiyah tribal PMF defending their area mixed with the blood of the heroic Iraqi army,” focusing on the fact that the bulk of those losing their lives in the fight against ISIS continue to be Sunni locals working with government forces, often against members of their own tribe.

Karbouli has long supported a Sunni tribal unit in al-Qaim along the Iraqi-Syrian border that continues to be instrumental in the fight against ISIS and which was trained and equipped by international coalition forces.

Sheikh Saeed Jassim al-Mashhadani said in January that he had been targeted in an assassination attempt and had to leave the area temporarily. He was back in the town during the Feb. 20 operation, however, and spoke to Newlines from there on Feb. 22.

In an interview in his Tarmiyah diwan in December 2018, the sheikh, who was at that time head of the tribal council for northern Baghdad and a former Arab Awakening leader, noted that three of his sons had been killed during the years of fighting against al Qaeda.

Iraq officially declared victory against ISIS in December 2017, but operations against cells active in various areas of the country continue over three years later. Some have called for harsher measures to be used against the areas in which cells are found, some urging the “heroes” of the Shiite-led PMF as well as the army to do more to clear these “terrorist-infested” areas.

Other commentators pointed out on Twitter that scant attention is paid to populations internally displaced by armed groups other than ISIS and that this not only is a human rights abuse but could also be used by terrorist groups to gain support among the disenfranchised.

The involvement of Shiite-led PMF from the south in the Feb. 20 operation rekindled talk in various circles of major, alleged human rights abuses by some of these armed groups during the fight against ISIS, starting in 2014, that have not yet been thoroughly investigated.

Concerns were voiced that the presence of ISIS in the area might be used as an excuse for mass displacement of the inhabitants in the “Baghdad belt” by these forces, many of which are now government salaried and incorporated. In addition to praise for security forces and statements of condolences for those who lost their lives in the fight against terrorism and for the benefit of the country, some Twitter accounts warned that the same fate may await Tarmiyah as that of Jurf al-Sakr in Babil province further south.

The Sunni town was renamed Jurf al-Nasr (“Nasr” means “Victory”) after being retaken from ISIS control by forces including Shiite-led PMF in late 2014, but most Iraqis continue to call it by its original name. None of its inhabitants have been allowed to return. In early 2014, it had an estimated population of 89,000, mostly Sunnis from the al-Janabi tribe.

In recent years, I have repeatedly asked both Iraqi officials and PMF media representatives and commanders for permission to enter Jurf al-Sakr: Answers have ranged from, “even the Iraqi officials concerned were not allowed in” to simply, “impossible, better not to even ask.”

One man working within the PMF media department warned that “you will just draw suspicion to yourself.”

Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi told me in 2019, when he was still governor of Anbar province, that he believed the hundreds of mostly men from his province who had disappeared at the Razaza checkpoint during the fight against ISIS were possibly being held in Jurf al-Sakr by Kataib Hezbollah. Long known as one of the more secretive of the Shiite Iran-linked factions, Kataib Hezbollah was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. in 2009 after a lethal attack on American forces in Karbala. Some of its brigades have been incorporated into the official PMF, however, and its spokesperson Mohammed Mohi has been more open to talking to journalists at times — including me — when he felt it could be useful for the group.

Migration and Displacement Minister Ivan Faiek Jabru told Newlines via WhatsApp on Feb. 23 that the security situation, including mines and unexploded ordnance still littering the area, meant that residents were not yet able to return.

In an interview in October 2018 at the Karbala shrine complex, the then head of the PMF for Western Anbar and deputy security chief for the complex, Qassim Musleh, said that the PMF in the town would “never” allow its Sunni residents to return to Jurf al-Sakr since it would pose a risk to the nearby “holy city” of Karbala. In the same interview with me, he claimed that the Iraqi Army was “weak” and “couldn’t control anything.”

Though ISIS cells clearly continue to operate close to the capital in Tarmiyah, posing a risk to it and the town’s inhabitants, the residents are — as the head of military intelligence noted after the Feb. 20 operation — the ones providing the information essential to conducting such operations.

A long-standing contact from the Mashhadani tribe originally from Tarmiyah, for example, told me in Baghdad in January that a sheikh in the area was in indirect contact with ISIS and was profiting from the relationship, enabling him to then use that money to gain more power and support. The sheikh, he said, had been imprisoned in previous years but was later released, allegedly after bribes were paid. The source spoke of profits from several businesses being fed back into ISIS coffers, claiming, for example, that the actual number of fish farms in the area was vastly larger than the official figures listed in Baghdad and that this was helping to fuel ISIS activities.

In July 2020, roughly two months after he was sworn into office, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was filmed walking the streets of Tarmiyah, shortly after a general was assassinated in an attack claimed by ISIS in the town. This public appearance was apparently an attempt to show that the population should not be afraid of ISIS as well as to dispel rumors of sectarian plans for Shiite militias to “take over” the town.

Terrorism expert and former government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi, who focused on Iraq’s extremist groups, said in a 2018 interview with me that ISIS profits from fish farms near Baghdad, and fighting the international terrorist group would require going after their income streams and corruption, not just fighting it through military means. He also said at the time that Tarmiyah was the “center of Salafi recruiting in the Baghdad area.”

Hashimi was assassinated in early July 2020. As of early March 2021, no one has been charged with his killing. As one of its inaugural pieces, Newlines published a story on how Hashimi had been finishing a landmark study on crimes by and corruption within the PMF when he was killed.

Threatened as it is by ISIS cells, corruption, and sectarian tensions, Tarmiyah has the potential to incarnate much of what Hashimi warned about – unless extreme care is taken to ensure that those doing the crackdown on the first two do not inflame the third.

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