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Islamic State Resilient as Ever in Iraq, Syria

FILE - A member of the Iraqi forces flashes the V for victory sign during military operations in the south and west of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in search of Islamic State militants, July 11, 2021.
FILE - A member of the Iraqi forces flashes the V for victory sign during military operations in the south and west of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in search of Islamic State militants, July 11, 2021.

Intelligence agencies studying the fate of the Islamic State in Iraq fear the terror group is not going anywhere, even as U.S. combat forces in the country prepare to "recede deep into the background" and leave the brunt of the work to Iraqi forces.

The assessment is one of the key findings in a report released by the United Nation's sanctions monitoring team, which warns that despite setbacks, IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is poised to be a problem for some time to come in Iraq and in neighboring Syria, as well.

"The group has evolved into an entrenched insurgency, exploiting weaknesses in local security to find safe havens and targeting forces engaged in counter-ISIL operations," according to the report released Friday, which was based on member state intelligence.

"Attacks in Baghdad in January and April 2021 underscore the group's resilience despite heavy counter-terrorism pressure from Iraqi authorities," the report added. IS "is likely to continue attacking civilians and other soft targets in the capital whenever possible to garner media attention and embarrass the Government of Iraq."

In addition to IS' ability to launch attacks in Baghdad, U.N. member state intelligence agencies see the terror group reasserting itself in the Diyala, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk governorates, where its operatives have carried out a series of attacks on roads linking one area to another.

Intelligence agencies also expressed concern that IS operatives are successfully exploiting poor communication and coordination among different Iraqi provinces.

Some intelligence agencies further cautioned that the precarious political situation in Iraq, as well as in Syria, will give IS more opportunities to solidify its status.

A weakened IS?

In contrast, however, some recent U.S. assessments have been more optimistic.

U.S. officials describe IS in Iraq as "diminished," noting that it may now command as few as 8,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, a far cry from the upwards of 34,000 fighters the terror group likely had during its heyday.

The U.N. report likewise indicates that in some ways, IS is a shell of its former self, having seen Iraqi forces help whittle away at its leadership.

U.N. member state intelligence agencies also note that the group's self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (also known as Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla) "remains reluctant to communicate directly with supporters," according to the U.N. assessment.

At the same time, its financial resources have waned.

And for now, at least some officials remain unconvinced that the decision by the United States to end its combat mission against IS in Iraq will make much a of difference.

"They're not going into combat themselves, perhaps the way they were a few years ago," Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the U.S., said of the American forces in Iraq during a call on Monday. "Really, the assistance that they're providing is training, intelligence, airstrikes."

However, there is also a reluctance to dismiss the threat.

The latest public U.S. assessment of IS in Iraq and Syria cautioned that the terror group "remains capable of waging a prolonged insurgency," warning that no matter what happens on the ground, "the appeal of ISIS's ideology almost certainly will endure."

Some experts think that fervor could soon begin to play out on the ground in Iraq, if only in a limited way, for the time being.

"There are some areas where it poses a significant threat, where ISIS fighters could potentially carry out assassinations or even an offensive to take territory," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and the CEO of Valens Global, told VOA.

"Certainly, for some smaller towns that are closest to areas of ISIS' strength, ISIS is a great threat there," he said.

Others warn that no matter what happens as a result of the U.S. ending its combat mission in Iraq, IS' propaganda arms will seek to spin it as nothing less than a victory.

"The Islamic State will take the decision as evidence of the success of its own strategy, particularly in light of the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, that the Americans are not willing to commit the resources to stay in the fight over the long term," Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.