ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Another round of talks began in Erbil on Monday between Iraq’s defense ministry and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs to reach an agreement to fill the security gap in the disputed territories.
A high-level delegation from Baghdad landed in Erbil on Monday to start another round of talks regarding the security of the disputed territories and the establishment of joint coordination rooms to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).
“We [Iraqi defense ministry] have started a new round of meetings with the Peshmerga ministry in which we aim to make connections and set joint coordination rooms to fight against Daesh (ISIS),” Maj. Gen. Tahsin Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operation Command, told reporters in a press conference in Erbil on Monday.
Khafaji also explained that ISIS is taking advantage of some areas where there is a security gap in the disputed territories, due to lack of coordination between Kurdish and Iraqi federal security forces.
The Iraqi defense ministry and KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs agreed this week to establish three joint coordination rooms between the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga forces to eliminate ISIS cells active in the disputed areas, which stretches across Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin and Nineveh provinces.
At the height of its power between 2014 and 2016, ISIS controlled an area roughly the size of Great Britain, spread across both Iraq and Syria.
Although Baghdad announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq in December 2017, remnants of the group have returned to their earlier insurgency tactics, ambushing security forces, kidnapping and executing suspected informants, and extorting money from vulnerable rural populations, particularly in territory disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.
The coordination rooms will be located in in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Nineveh, according to Brigadier General Yehia Rasool, spokesperson of Iraqi Commander-in-Chief.
Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lie. Gen. Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah said in an interview with Iraqi state-media earlier this month that the new joint coordination rooms would bring “safety” back to Kirkuk province.
Kirkuk has been subject to a spate of recent ISIS attacks. Gunmen attacked the offices of the Iraqi Directorate for Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence in Kirkuk city in April, and coalition warplanes regularly bombs ISIS hideouts in the province.
Sirwan Barzani, a Peshmerga commander, told Rudaw on Monday that Erbil and Baghdad are “very close” to reaching an agreement regarding the security in the disputed areas.
“I’m not part of the meetings, but they are very close to reach a mutual understanding and agreement,” Barzani said. “The main focus of the meetings is on Kirkuk, and they discuss how to establish the joint cooperation rooms,”
Barzani said that the main aim of the meetings between Ministry of Peshmerga and Iraqi defense ministry is to eliminate “Daesh in the disputed areas.”
“Daesh is very active in the areas of Makhmour, and Gayara,” Barzani said, adding that more than 150 militants can be found on Qarachogh mountain, near Makhmour.
Barzani revealed that during the past two months, more than 100 ISIS militants have been killed in the Qarachogh and Makhmour.
“If the US-led coalition withdraws from Iraq, it will be the biggest mistake and great opportunity for ISIS to rise again,” Barzani added.
In recent months, the coalition has withdrawn from several Iraqi bases and repositioned troops after successes in the campaign to defeat ISIS and to protect personnel amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, British troops withdrew from Taji military camp in northern Baghdad and handed over the training mission to Iraqi security forces, according to an official statement from the coalition.
International forces handed control of six other military bases to the Iraqis in March: Abu Ghraib near Baghdad, K1 in Kirkuk, al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah in western Iraq, al-Sqoor in Mosul, and al-Taqaddum in Anbar.
ISIS welcomed the withdrawal as an opportunity to spread its insurgency and has vowed to exploit the drawdown of coalition troops in Iraq, resuming hit-and-run tactics and torching farmers’ fields.
“ISIS remains a threat, but they are not able to conduct large scale attacks. ISIS is present in disputed areas, including areas in Makhmour, and other areas in the disputed areas,” coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins III told Rudaw on Monday.
“Three years ago ISIS defeated in Mosul, and it was due to a joint and strong coordination between Peshmerga, Iraqi security forces, Popular Mobilization Forces, and counter terrorism forces,” Caggins said. “We are here in Erbil today to make sure the joint coordination rooms between Peshmerga and Iraqi army to be activated, to eliminate ISIS in the disputed areas.”
ISIS insurgent activities have increased in recent weeks.
The extremist group killed commander of Brigade 59 of the Iraqi Army, Brigadier General Ali Hameed Ghaydan, after militants attacked his convoy in the Ibn Sena region in al-Tarmia district, north of the capital city of Baghdad.
On May 15, two soldiers were killed and four wounded when a convoy hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in northern Baghdad province. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the blast.
May was a deadly month. Ten Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al Shaabi in Arabic) fighters were killed in a five-pronged assault in Salahaddin on May 2. On the same day, militants killed three federal police officers and wounded two others in an attack on Zaghniya police station in Diyala province.
On Thursday, ISIS weekly propaganda al-Naba newspaper claimed its militants had carried out 23 attacks in Iraq between July 9 and 15 alone – mainly in Diyala.
Jabar Yawar, chief of staff at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, warned in April that 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.