IRAQ Massive Islamic State attack on restaurant and checkpoint underlines elevated threat to Shia around Ashura


Massive Islamic State attack on restaurant and checkpoint underlines elevated threat to Shia around Ashura

Three teams of IS jihadists killed over 80 people in a gun and suicide bomb attack in Nasiriyah, 300 km south-east of Baghdad, on 14 September. The fighters targeted checkpoints and a restaurant frequented by Shia pilgrims, situated on a major road from Dhi Qar Province to Baghdad. IS also claimed to have ambushed a Shia militia checkpoint the day before in Musayyib, a Shia-majority town around 60 km south of the capital. The violence underlines the group’s heavily sectarian agenda; IS believes that attacks against Shia interests will fuel sectarian tensions and trigger retaliation against the Sunni community, which it can then exploit to gain recruits and support. It therefore places a high value on successful attacks against Shia, particularly in the Shia-majority South.

Our 21 June Report noted that IS’s focus on defending Mosul would limit its ability to conduct a high tempo of violence in the South, and that it would instead seek to carry out occasional one-off major attacks there. Although the group has now lost Mosul, it is pre-occupied by efforts to retain control of its remaining urban centres, and so attacks in the South will continue to be periodic. The recent violence also indicates that IS will look to strike soft targets such as shrines, religious events and public spaces, and security checkpoints.

Iraqi forces have now delayed plans to liberate Hawija, the last major IS-held town in Kirkuk Province, likely due to concerns that Kurdish forces would seek to exert influence over the operation. Instead, the Army has turned its focus to Anbar, where our last report noted an increase in Iraqi and coalition airstrikes. In a joint operation with the Syrian Army, Iraqi forces on 16 September retook the border town of Akashat, which is one of several small outposts on the road to Qaim, Rawa and Anah, which link Anbar to IS-held territory in Syria.

The eventual liberation of these towns will be a major blow to IS, but its presence in Anbar will not be eradicated entirely because the group will likely be able to retain a presence in isolated areas of the province. At this point, it will shift its focus from defending territory to launching a higher tempo of attacks nationwide, in an effort to maintain its relevance. Such violence will likely prioritise Shia interests, the security forces and foreign military interests. IS may also step up attacks against infrastructure, possibly including energy facilities, in an attempt to delay recovery efforts in war-torn Sunni-majority provinces. It hopes that this will be a long-term source of tension between Sunnis and Baghdad, which it intends to exploit to rebuild its support. Until then, IS attacks outside territory it controls will remain sporadic, though Shia interests will face an elevated threat around Ashura on 30 September, particularly in Baghdad where IS could target religious events and public areas.

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