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The Iraq Report: Feared Islamic State 'deputy caliph' killed in raid

Security was tightened in Baghdad following the operation that killed the top IS figure. [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 February, 2021

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The Islamic State's most powerful operative in Iraq has been killed by counter-terrorism and security forces, striking a serious blow to the terrorist organisation.
Following deadly twin suicide bombings in Baghdad claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) earlier this year, the Iraqi state security apparatus has struck back and claimed a high value target in revenge. 

In coordination with the US-led anti-IS coalition, Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) operatives killed "deputy caliph" Abu Yasser al-Issawi. The attack demonstrated Iraq's domestic intelligence capabilities but also raised the question as to why this could not have been achieved sooner.

While the government basks in the elimination of IS' top man in Iraq, Iraqis have again been angrily denouncing the finance ministry's proposed budget for 2021 that is due to be passed.

With a bloated public sector, many of the proposed cuts to the ranks of civil servants have sparked fears among workers that they could lose their jobs and livelihoods while corrupt officials continue to drain the nation's coffers with seeming impunity.

IS' Iraq chief killed in raid

The Islamic State's most powerful operative in Iraq was reported killed last Thursday by counter-terrorism and security forces, striking a serious blow to the terrorist organisation and its cadres. 

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took to Twitter to hail the killing of one of the most dangerous militants currently operating on Iraqi soil and hailed the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) for their achievement.

Following deadly twin suicide bombings in Baghdad, the Iraqi state security apparatus has struck back and claimed a high value target

"Our heroic armed forces have eliminated Daesh commander Abu Yaser Al-Issawi as part of an intelligence-led operation," Kadhimi tweeted, adding: "I gave my word to pursue [IS] terrorists, we gave them a thundering response."

Less than a fortnight ago, two suicide bombers rocked a central Baghdad open-air market, killing dozens of civilians and wounding more than 100 others. IS eventually claimed responsibility for the attack, drawing a vow of a crushing response from Kadhimi's government.

That response seems to have now been delivered courtesy of the CTS and Iraq's spy agency the National Intelligence Service (NIS) who worked together to locate Issawi in the mountainous regions south of Kirkuk's Chai Valley with support from the US-led anti-IS coalition.

The Iraq Report: Deadly terror in Baghdad suicide bombings

Coalition spokesman, Colonel Wayne Marotto, tweeted that Issawi had been killed in an airstrike during a joint Iraqi-Coalition operation on 27 January, a day earlier than what was reported by Kadhimi.

Iraq's CTS is an elite force that has been armed, equipped, and trained by the United States and played a pivotal role in IS' defeat in 2017 that saw the extremist group lose all of its territorial gains in Iraq after having conquered a third of the country in the summer of 2014.

Crucially, the CTS answers directly to the prime minister's office and is somewhat insulated from the general chain of command that has seen other military formations, such as the controversial Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), that have been infiltrated by Iran operate ultra vires and without the state's explicit authority.

Kadhimi is not only prime minister, but he is also still the NIS chief, an organisation he has led since mid-2016 and that also played a role in IS' defeat through the recruitment of local assets to locate IS targets and make them easier for the CTS and other units to neutralise.

The joint operation between CTS and NIS may be indicative of Kadhimi's desire to utilise units that are likely to obey his commands and directives rather than relying on units like the PMF which has questionable loyalties and elements of which have already clashed with the Iraqi premier

While many Iraqis have celebrated Issawi's demise and praised the Iraqi security services responsible for his death, they have still levelled criticism at the government.

The attack demonstrated Iraq's domestic intelligence capabilities but also raised the question as to why this could not have been achieved sooner

Ali al-Karkhi, who witnessed IS' 2016 Karrada attack that killed more than 300 civilians, told The New Arab that the speed in which Issawi was killed after the Baghdad market bombing in January suggested that the government could have neutralised him much sooner. 

"It has been years since Daesh was defeated in 2017, and soon two years since [former IS leader] Baghdadi was killed by the Americans. I don't believe they couldn't find somebody like Issawi sooner," Karkhi said, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group. "They could have killed him sooner. Then maybe the attack a few weeks ago wouldn't have happened." 

However, it is unclear if the security forces could have prevented the attack, even though coalition sources claimed they had been tracking the IS fugitive "for some time"

Since IS' defeat, Baghdad has largely been spared the large-scale suicide bombings IS and associated groups are renowned for. However, gaps in Iraq's national security generally and Baghdad's defences in specific were bound to form after factional disputes occurred between various branches of the security forces and Iran-backed militias who have been targeting American interests in an effort to force Washington to withdraw entirely. 

While the federal police and the interior ministry are heavily influenced by pro-Iran politicians, particularly the Badr Organisation, the CTS and NIS fall under the command and control of the prime minister. It is therefore plausible that Kadhimi could not have done more than he already did to prevent last month's IS terror attack, and his handling of the situation to avenge those lost in the attack should buy him some goodwill with a flustered and war-weary Iraqi population. 

Read more: Mosul: A wounded city trying to heal

Iraq's budget woes continue to fluster public sector 

But Iraqis are frustrated for more reasons than the ever-present threat of IS extremists and hardline Shia militants loyal to the neighbouring theocratic Iranian regime. Their economic concerns have yet to be addressed almost 18 years since the United States toppled Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein.

A consistent demand of the 2019 protest movement was economic opportunity and transparency, but Iraq's latest budget does not seem capable of healing those particular wounds.

A government white paper published late last year stirred public anger after it recommended slashing public sector jobs and encouraging private sector growth. However, as the bloated public sector is Iraq's largest employer, this would threaten the livelihoods of millions of Iraqis. 

Parliament is now debating whether to pass this year's budget based on the recommendations of the controversial white paper.

The budget is projected to be $113 billion with a deficit of $50 billion. The government proposal to balance the books will involve slashing the public sector wage bill by shrinking the number of civil servants employed, investing in private sector incentives, getting a handle on Iraq's endemic graft, and improving governance. 

To support the country as it grapples with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and a global drop in oil prices and demand, the Iraqi central bank devalued the dinar to dollar exchange rate by 18.5 percent just before the new year.

While many Iraqis have celebrated Issawi's demise and praised the Iraqi security services responsible for his death, they have still levelled criticism at the government

However, there are concerns that the deep-rooted corruption - that has seen Iraq consistently languishing near the bottom of Transparency International's corruption perception index for years - will be too much to overcome in this fiscal year.

"Encouraging private sector activity is good, but we need a system to protect against exploitation by powerful politicians and militias," Neda Abduljabbar, an unemployed agriculture graduate in the northern city of Mosul, told The New Arab

"Corruption is a disease and does not get solved overnight, but we need more safeguards otherwise all these private contracts will be swallowed up by the corrupt elite," Abduljabbar said.

Her concerns are echoed elsewhere in Iraq. Al Jazeera English reported last week a privatisation and investment rush in the western Anbar governorate, one of the worst affected by the war against IS. However, locals fear that, without reforms to enhance transparency and accountability, private business may end up engaging in corrupt practices hand-in-glove with government officials. 

Read more: A year after Soleimani's killing, tensions
simmer in Iraq

An urgent area of reform is likely to be the public sector itself, and rapid changes can technically be made without offloading to the private sector.

Iraq has long grappled with the phenomenon of "ghost employees", with reports stating that 20 percent of the national budget was squandered on corrupt civil servants who claimed salaries for many fake employees that only existed on paper and pocketing their salaries for themselves. 

This situation even emerged in the armed forces where 50,000 ghost soldiers could not be accounted for, a scandal that emerged after IS had trounced government forces in 2014 and almost captured the capital Baghdad in the ensuing panic. 

At the time, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was blamed for presiding over a corrupt system, but the practice has continued unabated ever since.

Iraq's economic, political, and security problems are all intertwined. Should the government address only one issue and neglect the others, it will lead to civil unrest and even violence. Baghdad cannot afford to simply applaud itself whenever it eliminates IS militants, but must also address the underlying political, social, and economic issues that gives rise to such extremist groups being able to operate in Iraq in the first place.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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