IS extremists intensify as Iraq, Syria fight coronavirus

BAGHDAD: The man wearing an explosive vest got out of a car and calmly marched towards the gates of the intelligence building in the city of Kirkuk, northern Iraq. When he ignored their screams to stop, the guards opened fire and blew himself up, injuring three staff members in the first week of Ramadan. Days later, a coordinated three-pronged attack killed 10 Iraqi militia fighters in the northern province of Salahaddin, the deadliest and most complex operation in many months.

The assaults are the latest in a resurgence of attacks by the Islamic State group in northern Iraq. The first was a brazen suicide mission that hadn't been seen in months. The second was one of the most complex attacks since the group's defeat in 2017. In neighboring Syria, ISIS attacks on security, oil fields and civilian sites have also intensified.

The renewed chaos is a sign that the militant group is taking advantage of governments absorbed in the fight against the pandemic and the subsequent fall into economic chaos.

The coronavirus is compounding long-standing concerns among security and UN experts that the group would return after its caliphate, which once encompassed a third of Iraq and Syria, was toppled last year.

In Iraq, militants are also exploiting security breaches at a time of an ongoing territorial dispute and a reduction in US troops.

It is a real threat, said Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister for the Iraq region.

They are mobilizing and killing us in the north and they will start to hit Baghdad soon . He said IS was benefiting from a gap between the federal forces and the armed forces caused by political infighting.

Intelligence reports say the number of IS fighters in Iraq is believed to be 2,500-3,000.

In northeast Syria, Kurdish-dominated police have become a more visible target for IS as they patrol the streets to implement anti-virus measures, said a spokesman for forces led by the Kurdish allies of the United States.

ISIS fighters in late March launched a campaign of attacks in government-controlled parts of Syria, from central Homs province to Deir el-Zour to the east, on the border with Iraq.

Some 500 fighters, including some who had escaped from prison, recently slipped from Syria to Iraq, helping fuel the escalation of violence there, Iraqi intelligence officials said.

IS is shifting from local intimidation to more complex attacks, three Iraqi military officials and experts said. Operations previously focused on assassinations of local officials and less sophisticated attacks.

Now the group is carrying out more IED attacks, gunfire and ambushes by police and the military. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Multiple factors help militants. The number of Iraqi military personnel on duty fell 50% due to virus prevention measures, military officials said.

Also, territorial disputes between Baghdad and authorities from the northern Kurdish autonomy zone have left parts of three provinces without law enforcement. The rugged landscape is difficult to police.

The increase also coincides with a withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces from bases in western Iraq, and the Kirkuk provinces in line with a reduction planned in December.

Before the virus appeared and before the U.S. withdrawal, operations were negligible, with just one operation per week, a senior intelligence official said. Now, he said, security forces are seeing an average of 20 operations a month. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to report to the media.

Coalition spokesman Colonel Myles B. Caggins III said IS attacks were mounting in reaction to operations against their hideouts in the mountains and rural areas of north-central Iraq.

Iraqi military officials believe the improved and organized nature of the attacks serves to consolidate the influence of new Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, who received his name after his predecessor was assassinated in a US raid on late last year. A military official said more operations are expected during Ramadan to demonstrate the strength of the new leader.

In Syria, one of the most important attacks occurred on April 9, when IS fighters attacked government positions in and near the city of Sukhna. The government brought reinforcements for a counterattack backed by airstrikes.