ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Residents and officials in Iraq's disputed territories told Kurdistan 24 on Tuesday that Islamic State militants continue to be active in multiple rural areas, where they exploit a security vacuum to extort and wage terror against local populations.
Though the territorial collapse of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria has transformed the group's methods, the threat posed by it, as military commanders have affirmed, remains palpable. This is especially true in the countryside, where defense forces have difficulty monitoring the group’s activities.
The terrorist organization is thought to maintain a network of hideouts and tunnels close to areas it once controlled following its rise to prominence in 2014. Among these are regions disputed between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Throughout many of these areas, Kurdish Peshmerga held a frontline and prevented mass infiltration by sleeper cells while the Islamic State controlled large amounts of nearby territory. Defensive capabilities, however, significantly deteriorated after Iraqi forces, in response to the Kurdistan Region's independence referendum of September 2017, overran Kirkuk and other disputed territories and drove Kurdish forces from them.
Now, a notorious hideout for the terrorist group still lies in Mount Qarachokh, a harsh, barren tract of land where Peshmerga and Iraqi forces intermittently carry out operations against its fighters. The international coalition against the Islamic State also pounds the group's tunnels and weapons’ stockpiles with airstrikes.
At the foot of the mountain, Islamic State gunmen regularly assault villages, threaten increased violence, and levy so-called “taxes,“ prompting some civilians to leave their homes and seek refuge to the north in the Kurdistan Region.
“Da’esh [Islamic State] movements have become intensified,” a villager who is from the area but now lives in Erbil, told Kurdistan 24 on Tuesday. “They go into the villages at night... and demand taxes in sheep, goats, and one hundred thousand [Iraqi] dinars (roughly $85) per house.”
“If developments continue like this… people will not be able to bear it any longer and may be forced to leave,” he added.
Another villager, on condition of anonymity, recounted his experience of a home invasion by Islamic State members to Kurdistan 24. “They come into the village once every two or three nights… they take whatever they need.”
“Whoever has livestock must pay 100,000 dinars” during every visit, the source claimed. “Iraqi forces are there, but they can’t do anything.”
While putting an end to such sleeper cells and their reign of terror on rural populations in these areas would prove a momentous task, Peshmerga commanders believe it is possible if forces with in-depth knowledge of such regions are stationed there.
As a senior Peshmerga officer named Krmanj Abdullah told Kurdistan 24 on Tuesday, “The Peshmerga is familiar with the terrain, defended it, spilled blood for it.”
Editing by John J. Catherine