ERBIL, Iraq — A man driving a car loaded with explosives who was thought to have been about to attack a police station detonated himself in the regional capital of the Sunni-majority Anbar province, Ramadi, about 100 kilometers west of Baghdad, on Oct. 3.
As of publication, the Islamic State (IS) had not yet claimed responsibility for the attempted attack.
Later the same day, two soldiers were reportedly killed and two others were injured in a village in Diyala province north of Baghdad, leading to the major Kirkuk-Baghdad road being temporarily blocked and Iraqi airstrikes on an IS “hideout."
The Islamic State seems to be at least partially shifting its focus to Afghanistan, with more casualties caused by the local Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) branch there after the Taliban takeover of the country on Aug. 15 — but with ISKP still second to IS in Iraq in terms of the number of attacks in a single country in which the international terrorist group operates.
Incidents and operations carried out near the capital and in other cities have once again raised concerns, but several attacks have reportedly been prevented through intelligence.
The Iraqi National Security Service (INSS) announced on its Facebook page on Sept. 29 that it had ambushed and killed two IS members in the area of Tarmiya in what is often referred to as the Baghdad Belt. The men had reportedly been planning suicide attacks in Baghdad.
Tarmiya is located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad in a “V” between the main road running from the Iraqi capital to Kirkuk east of it and the main one running to Tikrit to its west.
Security forces have often been targeted, allegedly by IS cells, in the town.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited the town and was videotaped walking through its streets in July 2020, in an attempt to assuage security concerns and dispel rumors of sectarian plans by Shiite armed groups based in the capital to retaliate against the Sunni town after a high-ranking officer from the army’s 59th Brigade was killed by a sniper there.
These rumors of Shiite militia plans have persistently cropped up in recent years, with locals fearing any sign of instability may serve as an excuse to take their property away from them and carry out mass arrests.
INSS noted it had successfully conducted the ambush in late September in collaboration with the local Tarmiya Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and other forces in the area.
The dense orchards, proximity to the capital and long history of being a hotbed for Salafi recruiting have left the town of Tarmiya exposed and seen as an attractive location for those wanting to carry out attacks in and near Baghdad.
Several high-level al-Qaeda and IS leaders are originally from Tarmiya or the surrounding area, many from its dominant tribe, the Mashhadani.
In a 2018 interview, Iraqi counterterrorism and security expert Hisham al-Hashimi told this journalist Tarmiya was “the center of Salafi recruiting in the Baghdad area” and that IS had continued to profit from fish ponds in the area as a source of funding after Iraq officially declared victory against the transnational terrorist organization in December 2017.
Hashimi was assassinated in Baghdad in July 2020.
In its post on the Sept. 29 ambush, INSS noted the investigation leading to the operation lasted over a month and a half. About two months prior to the killings, a suicide attack claimed by IS killed over 30 people in a busy market in Baghdad.
Some said then the attackers came from Tarmiya or at least used it as a base, demanding more forces be sent and it be cleared once and for all of insurgents.
Others claimed such rumors were simply the latest pretext for an attempt to engage in land-grabbing and sectarian-linked displacement of local Sunnis.
Iraq is a Shiite-majority country but has a significant population of Sunni Arabs, mostly in the western and northern parts of the country.
In early August, the Iraqi Security Media Cell said a joint operation by the INSS and the 6th Division of the army, which the 59th Brigade stationed in Tarmiya is part of, had killed a man named Omar Jawad al-Mashhadani in the town, noting he had been in charge of "transporting suicide bombers to carry out their operations.”
In relation to the late September ambush, the INSS post noted initial reports indicated both of the would-be attackers killed had come from Kirkuk.
Tarmiya Sheikh Saeed Jassim al-Mashhadani told Al-Monitor on Oct. 3, instead, that one of the attackers had been from Kirkuk and the other from Sulaimaniyah. The sheikh is the former head of the Arab Awakening in the northern Baghdad area. He lost three of his sons in attacks by or in fighting against al-Qaeda and IS.
The sheikh noted local tribal fighters, soldiers from the army’s 59th Brigade, and the INSS had taken part.
Meanwhile, north of Tarmiya, oil-rich Kirkuk province and its regional capital of the same name have long been a flashpoint town in relations between the central government and Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and areas disputed between them continue to create gaps in security.
Iraq’s Kurds have long claimed the city belongs to them, but the Iraqi central government retook the city from KRI forces in October 2017 after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held the previous month that Baghdad had been strongly against.
Though numerous attempts to close the gaps and foster closer collaboration between KRI and Baghdad forces seem to have resulted in some improvement, much remains to be done.
A still-murky incident in the southwestern part of the province in early September in which at least a dozen security forces were killed has meanwhile led to questions about both the security forces operating in the area and official reports on it.
A female Iraqi journalist long known to have an extensive network of contacts within the security forces but who had been issued an arrest warrant for “defamation” in 2020 cast doubt on the official version of this incident.
She claimed in an article the attack had been retaliation by members of the local community after an adolescent girl had been raped by two of the security forces killed. She also reported the men had not fought IS for two hours and run out of ammunition, as officials had previously claimed, but had instead been caught sleeping while on duty.
These claims have not yet been officially addressed by the security establishment or the government. However, the prime minister had notably — in contrast with the more traditional praise and condolences usually voiced after similar cases — heavily criticized the “mismanagement and shortcomings of military leaders” immediately after the incident, vowing to work on solving the issue.