Fighting Terrorism in the Middle East: Iraq’s Battle Against the Islamic State and Iranian Backlash

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Iraq has again reemerged as a major battleground in the turmoil in the Middle East. Iranian-backed militia groups target US troops in the country in reaction to US government actions, with the US responding in kind. The danger of the Islamic State remains. Iranian influence in Iraq has grown through Iranian-backed militias within the country. The Higher Military Commission (HMC), is a joint dialogue with the Iraqi government to examine the future of the coalition forces fighting the Islamic State.

The goal of the dialogue is to strive for the continued connection between the US Special Operations Forces (USSOF) and the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS). The CTS, created and supported by the US and with a firm partnership with USSOF, is a critical, bearing strategic partner in the region. It is the most significant and qualified counterterrorism force in the Middle East. In 2008, as the government of Iraq labored with Jaysh al-Mahdi and Iranian-backed Special Groups, CTS forces reacted. They executed operations in Sadr City and Basra and targeted Special Group leaders.

Persistent partnership with the CTS is critical to maintaining adequate pressure on the Islamic State. While impaired since the loss of its territorial caliphate in 2019, the threat of the Islamic State’s reconstitution remains. In January of this year, the Islamic State asserted an attack in Iran that killed almost 100 people and injured more than twice that number — the deadliest terrorist attack in Iran in decades. The group’s Afghanistan-based product, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), has been considered responsible for the attack, suggesting ISIS affiliates are still competent in executing some form of external operations.

US senior leaders also consider that the Islamic State’s core group in Iraq and Syria “urge  to strike beyond the Middle East.” Last April, the US military shot two Islamic State leaders in Syria, one reportedly plotting attacks in Europe and Turkey with the other planning to kidnap government officials abroad to achieve leverage. The CTS reportedly disrupted a plotted attack against the United Kingdom last summer by executing a raid that killed five senior Islamic State leaders, uncovering connections between the leaders and British nationals, and handing the information to British intelligence agencies. The Islamic State asserted credit for an attack on a Roman Catholic church in Turkey at the end of January.

Within Iraq and Syria, the threat of the Islamic State’s potential resurgence stays. Some believe the organization has already achieved ground, taking advantage of a region in turmoil. Others have voiced concerns about the repercussions of ending Western counterterrorism pressure. 

A resurgent Islamic State is in no one’s welfare. For Iraq and other countries in the region, it would add further threats to an already fragile security landscape. Arguably, an emboldened Islamic State allowed to continue external attacks against the West would again become a strategic distraction for the US and its Western partners trying to rebalance Middle East regional threats while focusing on other pressing geostrategic interests.

CTS was the only Iraqi security force not to tumble in the face of Islamic State’s rise in 2014 and was important in liberating Iraqi cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, plagued by the group. The reliable soldiers of the CTS battled as light infantry shock troops in the streets of Iraq’s Islamic State-involved cities. Many CTS soldiers were lost or injured in the fierce fighting, and today’s CTS is still recuperating. It is slowly regenerating action power, recruiting new members, and boosting its capabilities. Maintaining a USSOF relationship with the organization, advisory efforts, and US government backing is an economy of force effort, a small cost to offset a far more negative outcome.

The CTS is also arguably one of the most prosperous counterterrorism partnership efforts undertaken by the US. While the US has delivered approximately $800 million in supplies through programs like the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund – Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces Fund over the past 21 years, that accounts for just under 3% of the $28.4 billion asked or appropriated through the same schedules for training and equipping security forces in Iraq. Additionally, the total funding the US has supplied the CTS over 20 years amounts to less than 2% of the $44.2 billion in military service provided to Ukraine in the past two years.

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