MAKHMOUR, Kurdistan Region – Months of heavy rain have turned the normally arid plains of Qarachogh a verdant green. In this hotly disputed territory of northern Iraq, the increasingly brazen presence of bearded gunmen in the hills suggests the extremist threat once thought defeated is also growing back anew.
An hour and a half’s drive southwest of Erbil is the last Peshmerga checkpoint before travelers enter a vast no man’s land – one of several disputed areas that opened up between Kurdish and federal government lines when the two sides clashed in October 2017.
These ungoverned spaces, awash with rival armies and militias competing for supremacy, have left fertile ground for Iraq’s next insurgency to thrive and the resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS).
ISIS militants seized Makhmour and surrounding villages in 2014 before they were quickly routed in a combined operation led by the Peshmerga, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerillas, and Coalition forces.
Although the jihadist group was declared defeated in Iraq in December 2017, its remnants have retreated into Iraq’s deserts and mountains, where they have resumed earlier hit-and-run tactics of kidnap, ambush, bombing, and execution, aided by highly sophisticated sleeper cells in the cities and hinterland.
Six Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen were killed and 31 injured on March 7 when ISIS ambushed their bus as it passed through Makhmour.
Iraqi and coalition forces are well aware of the threat these insurgents pose, recently launching a ferocious operation in the Hamrin Mountains of northern Diyala to dislodge ISIS militants dug-in there.
But, like weeds breaking through cracks in a pavement, ISIS cells are sprouting up across the region, exploiting security gaps created where the Peshmerga withdrew.
“They are in two places in the Qarachogh Mountains… Ali Rash and Gali Manjalan,” says Hama, a Kurdish local of Makhmour who didn’t give his real name, fearing reprisals.
While out collecting desert truffles with neighbors in mid-March near the village of Ali Rash during his university spring break, the 23-year-old was approached by two men who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
He knew immediately what they were.
“When I saw Daesh, I was very scared,” Hama told Rudaw, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, over cups of sugary black tea.
“One of them asked ‘why are you scared?’ He raised his hand and placed it on my shoulder. He was carrying an assault rifle and wearing Afghan-style khaki clothes,” Hama said.
Expecting the worst, the student was surprised by the militant’s friendliness.
“He said ‘we know the people of Makhmour are poor and honest’,” Hama recalled of his exchange with the militant, which occurred in broad daylight.
The group’s violent intent, however, was not far from the surface.
“He had a big military knife,” Hama explained. “He told me not to worry and asked ‘do you know who this is for?’ He said it is ‘only for the Shiite’.”
Hama’s experience echoes similar encounters elsewhere in Iraq, where ISIS has sought to cultivate itself among submissive communities. Where they have encountered opposition and state informants, their retribution has been harsh.
A recent 21-minute propaganda film published on messaging app Telegram depicts militants executing at least seven Diyala village chiefs and tribal fighters who allegedly stood in their way.
The militants appear to have become particularly brazen, roaming around the plains at the southern foot of the Qarachogh Mountains in daylight hours, unconcerned about interactions with Sunni locals. Reassured by his first encounter with the militants, Hama was less perturbed when similar men approached him again days later on March 29.
“I saw them a second time in Gali Manjala. The second time I was not very scared. They said hi and I told them I was looking for truffles,” Hama said.
“There was a 50-year-old Daesh [among them]. One of the people who came to pick truffles had a child with him. The 50-year-old Daesh told the child ‘come, I‘ll pick truffles for you’. I felt that he had left behind his own children, as he seemed to be very fed up with the situation. He was kissing the child and held his hand and walked around with him.”
Truffle hunters are not always so fortunate. Since January there has been a spate of ISIS kidnappings and murders in these secluded spots, particularly in the isolated desert reaches of Anbar province. The killings led the federal government to outlaw the lucrative search for mushrooms in several areas.
Eager to corroborate his claims about the growing boldness of ISIS in Makhmour, Hama calls his friend Shwan, a shepherd from the Qaraj area, who also chose to redact his real name. “Those Daesh guys have strong intelligence,” he warned.
Shwan estimates there are anything between 50 and 150 ISIS fighters and their families hiding among the caves and ravines. This says nothing of their support networks among the population.
ISIS doesn’t want to pick a fight at the moment, he says. “They are saving up their might for another time.”
The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, launched an operation last summer against ISIS remnants around Makhmour. With rare cooperation between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, the threat appeared to be contained.
Rudaw asked the Coalition whether it is aware of the group’s survival in Makhmour and its efforts to ingratiate with locals.
“It is likely that Daesh is attempting to refit, reorganize and recruit in the vicinity of Makhmour,” said US Army spokesman Col James Rawlinson in an email.
“Daesh wants to destabilize the area. The Coalition’s goal is to enable local security forces to contain and defeat threats and raise awareness of the deceptive nature of Daesh ideology to empower vulnerable populations to reject it.”
“The past confirms Daesh will seize any opportunity to exploit any security gap they can,” Rawlinson added.
Villagers see these security gaps and the failure of local forces to work together as the number one obstacle to defeating the group.
“The moment the Peshmerga left, there was a vacuum in this area,” said Hama. “The [Iraqi] army came without any knowledge of the local area.”
“Now [Daesh] are so brazen they come to Makhmour and buy what they need. Ninety-nine percent of the reason why Daesh is so strong is because the Peshmerga left.”
In the aftermath of the Kurdistan independence referendum of September 2017, Iraqi forces launched an offensive against Peshmerga forces in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and other areas considered disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.
In Makhmour, a combined force of Iraqi Army troops and Hashd al-Shaabi attacked the Peshmerga and PKK, forcing them out of the town and into the mountains.
The Peshmerga’s carefully cultivated human intelligence network in Makhmour collapsed. The predominantly Shiite forces which took their place failed to imitate its success.
“The Peshmerga were good at obtaining intelligence. They had informers who would bring them news,” said Hama. “Even those villagers under Daesh would bring them intelligence.”
Part of the problem is sectarianism.
“The people now do not cooperate because they are not happy with Hashd al-Shaabi. This area is Sunni up to Anbar. The Sunnis are against this army.”
Looking out at the Peshmerga’s rain-sodden front line overlooking Makhmour, its trenches and bunkers cloaked in the billowing white dust of a nearby limestone quarry, Hama shares his grim verdict on what comes next if Kurdish and Iraqi forces fail to work together.
“I don’t feel safe inside Makhmour,” he says. “Daesh has many sleeper cells. If it continues like this, Daesh could control this place within six months to a year.”