BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister announced Jan. 28 that a military operation launched after a double suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State (IS) a week before had killed the top-ranked IS commander in the country.
IS’ "wali" for Iraq, known as Abu Yasser al-Issawi, was shot in the head. Photos of his dead body circulated shortly after the announcement in WhatsApp groups, blurred on a tweet by the Counterterrorism Services (CTS), which was responsible for the operation in coordination with the national intelligence services.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sworn in last May, has led the intelligence services since June 2016, the year the monthslong battle against IS for Mosul began. Iraq declared victory over IS in Mosul in July 2017 and at the country-wide level in December 2017.
Abu Yasser al-Issawi was reportedly the nom de guerre of Jabbar Salman Ali al-Issawi, a 39-year-old native of Fallujah in Anbar province. The city, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Baghdad, has long been known for its large number of mosques, religious conservatism and tough insurgency following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Ramadi, the regional capital further west, is known instead for tribe-based ties and was at the center of what became known as the Sahwa, or Sunni tribal awakening, that was key to the defeat of IS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, beginning in 2006.
Al-Monitor was told by an Iraqi security official that Issawi had been put in charge of the northern Baghdad area prior to becoming country-wide IS commander and that security forces had tracked down 17 of his associates in the Kirkuk and adjacent Salahuddin provinces over the previous five months.
He was killed in the Wadi al-Shay area of southern Kirkuk province. In reporting from the southern and western areas of Kirkuk province over the past few years, the western border that is marked by the Hamrin Mountains stretching east to the Iranian border, this journalist was repeatedly told that this particular valley was “insurgent-infested.”
In May 2020, Sunni tribal fighters in southern Kirkuk put on a “show of unity” with other Iraqi forces including Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) after a spate of attacks on them by IS cells operating in the area.
A mullah who later turned to fighting IS — previously interviewed in his native area near Hawija by Al-Monitor — told Al-Monitor more recently that Wadi al-Shay was still problematic for its presence of IS fighters.
The valleys, mountains and vast desert areas of the country have long been difficult for Iraqi security forces to fully secure.
The cultivating of local sources, as well as intelligence and airstrikes provided by the international coalition, have played a key role in many major operations against IS in this area.
Questioned about whether he could confirm the news of Issawi’s killing, a coalition source who asked not to be named told Al-Monitor that it was “probably true. We were on his trail for a long time.” The source noted that the US-led body had been tracking his movements and capturing his associates, getting them to provide information.
In response to a request for comment, international anti-IS coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto told Al-Monitor in a Jan. 28 WhatsApp message, “Yesterday the CTS and CJTF-OIR conducted an operation near Kirkuk resulting in the deaths of 9 Daesh terrorists and the arrest of 1 Daesh terrorist,” using a term frequently employed to refer to IS. “I don’t have information on the identity of the dead terrorists.”
The spokesman confirmed in a Jan. 29 tweet that Issawi had been killed on Jan. 27.
The CTS were trained by the United States. Collaboration between them and the US forces against IS in such key areas as the Hamrin Mountains continued in early 2020, even after other cooperation was temporarily officially suspended following the US killing by drone strike of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi former PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Jan. 3, 2020.
This part of the armed forces, which answer directly to the prime minister, have taken on an ever greater role in key operations since Kadhimi took office. They were the ones tasked with a somewhat controversial arrest of members of Kataib Hezbollah in June 2020. Though proximity in any form to US forces often leads to backlash from Shiite-led militias operating in the country, the reputation gained by the CTS in the 2014-17 war against IS has largely spared them direct targeting.
The operation that killed Issawi was declaredly one in “revenge” for the “martyrs” of a Jan. 21 attack in a central, working-class market of Baghdad that killed 32 people and injured over 100 others. The attack was later claimed by IS.
Serious concerns were voiced about the apparent ability for some to enter the capital with explosives and conduct such a major attack, leading Iraq’s prime minister to swiftly dismiss several high-ranking Interior Ministry and intelligence officials from their positions.
The head of the federal police was replaced by Lt. Gen. Raed Jawdat Shaker, who had been federal police commander during the battle for Mosul in 2017. Abu Ali al-Basri, head of the Interior Ministry’s Falcon Intelligence Cell, was also initially removed from his position.
Gaps in security in the territory disputed between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are also often seen as problematic, giving space for insurgents to move and potentially reorganize.
Kirkuk province, in which the operation that killed Issawi was conducted, is one of the disputed areas. Parts of it were under the control of peshmerga forces until a referendum on KRG independence was held and Iraq sent in troops to forcibly take over the oil-rich province in October 2017.
This led to major grievances among the Kurdish population. Disputes continue between the KRG and the central government over both territory and oil, resulting in a lack of trust and what many see as insufficient sharing of intelligence.