Baghdad- Iraq’s victory over ISIS in Tal Afar was the latest in a string of gains against the group, but Iraqi forces still face massive challenges, experts say.
In 2014, as ISIS staged a rapid advance across northern Iraq, police and military personnel abandoned their posts to the militants with barely a fight.
That allowed the group to seize territory in parts of Syria and a third of Iraq’s territory including second city Mosul.
Today, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who took office three months after the 2014 military debacle, says the Iraqi state is back, stronger and better organized.
Under the Shi’ite premier’s command and backed by a US-led multinational coalition, Iraqi forces have retaken Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and in July, after a grueling nine-month battle, Mosul.
“Our battle plans are now being taught in military academies, including tactics for urban guerrilla warfare and demining,” interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan told Agence France Presse.
Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander of the US-led coalition, praised Iraqi forces for their achievements.
“The fight would have challenged almost any army in the world. The fact that the Iraqis could do it has given their security forces additional confidence,” he told AFP.
“They have shown themselves to be capable to maneuver against ISIS in all locations in Iraq.”
During the fight for Mosul, described by an American general in Baghdad as “the toughest urban battle since World War II”, Iraqi troops suffered heavy losses.
But they have now forced ISIS out of all its Iraqi territories except the town of Hawija, 300 kilometers north of Baghdad, and a few pockets of territory near the border with Syria.
In doing so, they have repaired some of the damage done three years ago and regained “the confidence of their fellow citizens and internationally”, said Jassem Hanoun, an Iraqi military expert.
But Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari warned on August 26 that “victory in Iraq will not mean an end to the danger posed by ISIS”.
He said Iraq would continue its military cooperation with the coalition, saying it needed “preventive security” against “terrorist cells working in the shadows”.
Hanoun said ISIS would likely go back to its “original mode of operation”, attacking targets such as residential districts and markets.
But a lack of coordination and organization means the security services struggle to cope with such attacks, he said.
The question of whether and how the coalition will continue to operate in Iraq is a hot political topic both for Baghdad and for Washington, which in 2011 finally withdrew its troops eight years after leading an invasion of the country.
Cooperation with the US poses a pressing dilemma: what will become of the Popular Mobilization Forces dominated by groups backed by Iran?
Most Shi’ite leaders call for PMF, currently under the command of the prime minister, to remain in its current form.
According to Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the PMF “is only the most recent version of a national politico-security configuration that has been combined with a sectarian component since 2003”, he said.
The Iraq specialist said the PMF’s existence was an “admission of the failure of an army trained by US administrations at great financial and material cost over 14 years.”