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Iraq to ‘ramp up’ anti-ISIS efforts, stop group’s attacks amid virus pandemic: defense minister

Iraq will ‘ramp up’ its efforts to shut down Islamic State (ISIS) attacks in the country to prevent the group from capitalising on upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s defense minister Najah al-Shammari said on Tuesday.

The defense minister’s vow came a day after a joint Iraqi Army, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi) and federal police force were ambushed by ISIS in Krikuk province while searching for four Iraqi intelligence personnel abducted by the group’s militants on Monday afternoon. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded during the hours of ensuing clashes, Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati, head of the Northern Branch of the Badr Organization in Iraq told Rudaw.

“The infiltration of terrorists and their terrorist activities in recent days in Iraq is increasing. We must discover the source,” Shammari said.

“Across all the areas, we must make a complete assessment of all the terrorist attacks and not allow the ISIS terrorists to capitalize on the current situation as we grapple with the coronavirus pandemic in Iraq,” he added.

Increased operation efforts will include gathering “more precise intelligence information” and more air force strikes on positions where the militants are hiding.

ISIS seized vast swathes of Syria and northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, including Mosul and other large Sunni-majority cities. The group was declared territorially defeated in Iraq in December 2017. However, a low intensity insurgency has continued in territories disputed by the governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, with militants exploiting the resulting security vacuums between. Bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, extortion, and arson have continued without relent.

Jabar Yawar, chief of staff at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, warned earlier this week the ISIS resurgence has been underway for some time.

“According to our data, the group increased its activities in 2018 and 2019, especially in Kurdistani areas outside of the Kurdistan Region administration, including Diyala, Hamrin, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu, and Qarachogh. In Qarachogh, they even established bases,” Yawar told Rudaw on Thursday.
Concerns have been raised in recent weeks that extremist groups might exploit the upheaval created by the coronavirus pandemic to win over more supporters and strike harder than before.

According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell, Monday’s joint operation was conducted with support from the US-led counter-ISIS coalition, but the COVID-19 outbreak has seen some contigents of the multinational force including France and the United Kingdom scramble to pull their troops out of the country. To date, Iraq has recorded 1,378 cases of coronavirus, and 78 related deaths.

Monday’s attack marked the third deadly assault on Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in the disputed territories in the past week. On Sunday, ISIS militants killed an Iraqi federal police officer at a checkpoint in Mansourieh al-Jabal, 45 kilometers west of Kirkuk city. Source