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ISIS in the Suburbs
The Iraqi Army claims that Baghdad is secure. But in Abu Ghraib, just 40 minutes away, the Islamic State’s presence can be felt everywhere.
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — "Do you notice any ISIS here?" Col. Ayad Khadam asked while driving a group of Western journalists around Abu Ghraib, a restive neighborhood west of Baghdad and one of the last bastions of government control outside the capital.
In the military convoy, Khadam was quick to point out signs of government control — regular checkpoints along smoothly paved roads, and a handful of shops open along the main highway.
But the telltale signs of Iraq’s fractured political order were also visible on this heavily orchestrated trip. Armed Shiite militia members sped past the military convoy in their signature white pickup trucks without license plates. Clusters of Shiite flags decorated government checkpoints and military outposts — despite the fact that the vast majority of Abu Ghraib’s residents are Sunni.
Abu Ghraib is on the front lines in the Iraqi government’s war to maintain a firm grip on Baghdad. As the western province of Anbar unravels, senior U.S. officials have warned that the security situation west of Baghdad is becoming perilous. Specifically, U.S. officials said, Islamic State militants had increased their presence in Abu Ghraib, putting Baghdad’s international airport within range of rocket attacks.
The Islamic State has maintained a presence in a number of neighborhoods in western Abu Ghraib for months. Iraqi officials said that until just a month ago, clashes with the militant group were common in the neighborhoods of Zindan and Khandari. In July, media outlets linked to the Islamic State posted a video to YouTube allegedly showing dozens of the Islamic State’s vehicles, including U.S.-made armored Humvees seized from the Iraqi Army, parading along a busy Abu Ghraib street at the end of March.
Today, the Iraqi Army is keen to dismiss those stories as relics of the recent past. When asked specifically about the Islamic State’s presence in western Abu Ghraib, Col. Khadam replied: "It is all under our control."
Reports of the Islamic State’s demise around Baghdad, however, are premature. Confidence in the Iraqi capital was shaken last week when three mortars hit the city’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the headquarters of Iraq’s government and the British and U.S. embassies, according to Iraqi intelligence sources. While no casualties were reported, the operation was a symbolic victory for the Islamic State, which took responsibility for the attack.
Senior Iraqi military and security officials are quick to shoot down any claims that the security situation around Baghdad is unstable. On the government-organized trip to Abu Ghraib, Issam Ali, the military commander in charge of the town’s eastern districts, tried to project an atmosphere of normalcy to the Western journalists.
"As you can see, everything here is under control," he said, dressed in freshly pressed military fatigues. "Everything is calm."
From inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, at the Baghdad Operations Command, chief of staff Gen. Kareem Subhi Zarkoosh toed a similar line, claiming the greatest threats to Baghdad’s security are "rumors" spread by the media.
"We’re not worried about those attacks," he said, referring to the mortar shells fired on the International Zone, as the Green Zone is also known. "They have no effect on the security of the IZ."
Zarkoosh ruled out any possibility that the Islamic State could even make a push on Baghdad: "There is no chance at all," he said, claiming that the city was protected by army strongholds west of the capital in the towns of Abu Ghraib and Amriyat al-Fallujah.
But Baghdad may not be as secure as the Iraqi officers say. Even as the military touts accomplishments in neighborhoods like Abu Ghraib, a deadly uptick in the number of car bombs in the capital has claimed hundreds of lives over just the past few weeks.
The Islamic State might not be able to hold territory in the capital, but it can still wreak havoc on many parts of the city. The same afternoon that Western journalists were being given a tour of Abu Ghraib, a series of bombs targeting civilians in mostly Shiite neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital and the southern city of Karbala killed more than 30 people. The most deadly attack that day occurred in Baghdad, when a suicide bomber hit a Shiite mosque where worshipers were gathered for noon prayers. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of past attacks carried out by Islamic State militants targeting Shiite areas of Baghdad.
"The car bomb attacks and suicide bomb attacks — this is probably the biggest threat to Baghdad, that these will continue and probably escalate," says Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst at the London-based research and consulting firm Integrity.
In Baghdad, a Western security official described the recent increase in bombings in the Iraqi capital as "dramatic." The official said that while the attacks target civilian areas, their larger intention is to broadcast the Islamic State’s capability, further destabilize Baghdad by increasing sectarian tensions, and ultimately discredit the Iraqi government.
"’Hey, we took Jurf al-Sakhar’ doesn’t have the same glorious ring to it when announced on a day when ISIS car bombs rip apart the city," the security official said, referring to a key town located between Baghdad and Karbala, which Iraqi security forces have recently retaken from the Islamic State.
Analysts and security officials in Baghdad say the recent increase in car bombs is particularly worrying now with the beginning of the Shiite holy month of Muharram. Thousands of Shiite pilgrims are soon expected to descend on Baghdad and Karbala — prime targets for jihadist violence.
"[Y]ou have hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on foot marching in dense columns within mortar range of ISIS-controlled areas," said Michael Knights, a former security advisor to the Iraqi government and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. During the Ashura pilgrimage, which occurs during the first 10 days of Muharram, Knights expects the Iraqi security forces will continue to try to consolidate their control along the road from Baghdad to Karbala.
While high-level officials like Gen. Zarkoosh of the Baghdad Operations Command dismiss concerns that the Shiite holiday will bring with it a new wave of violence, other security officials in the capital paint a different picture.
"I am very concerned about this time," admitted one senior official at the Ministry of Interior who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with the media. "I have a lot of fear about these 10 days."
The Interior Ministry official said Iraq’s security forces have responded to the increase in car bombings by increasing the number of checkpoints around the city, but he says he has little faith they’ll be effective.
"We have more soldiers and more police, but without better intelligence, what can they do?" he said.
The rank and file of Iraq’s security forces, meanwhile, are forced to muddle through with the scant resources at their disposal. A sergeant in Iraq’s police force stationed at a checkpoint in the northern neighborhood of Kadhimiya, home to a revered Shiite shrine and a frequent target of car bomb attacks, says there’s only so much his unit can do without more support from both the public and the government.
"There isn’t any close cooperation between us and the civilians; they don’t give us any information," he said. "But actually, I don’t blame the men at the checkpoint because they don’t have modern devices for searching vehicles. If we had more modern equipment, we wouldn’t need so many checkpoints in the first place."
In Abu Ghraib, however, the Iraqi military did its best to brush aside these limitations — at least for the day. Toward the end of the government-organized trip to Abu Ghraib, Iraqi soldiers stopped traffic and held back barbed wire to usher the Western journalists into the town’s main shopping area.
"Take your time and don’t worry, just tell the truth," an Iraqi soldier instructed a row of vegetable sellers being interviewed by the media.
"Everything is good here," Ahmed Jihad offered from behind his stall of fresh vegetables, which were mostly imported from Iran.
After a short pause, though, the vegetable seller reconsidered. The situation, he said, has been this way for months, and he barely travels beyond the few blocks between this market and his home. "Well, the people are scared to go outside," he continued. "So I cannot say the situation is very good, but they are just scared of the rumors."