BAQUBA, Iraq (Reuters) - Months after Iraq declared victory over Islamic State, its fighters are making a comeback with a scatter-gun campaign of kidnap and killing.
With its dream of a Caliphate in the Middle East now dead, Islamic State has switched to hit-and-run attacks aimed at undermining the government in Baghdad, according to military, intelligence and government officials interviewed by Reuters.
Islamic State was reinventing itself months before Baghdad announced in December that it had defeated the group, according to intelligence officials who said it would adopt guerrilla tactics when it could no longer hold territory.
Iraq has now seen an increase in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since it held an election in May, indicating the government will come under renewed pressure from a group that once occupied a third of the country during a three-year reign of terror.
Last month saw at least 83 cases of kidnap, murder or both in the three provinces. Most occurred on a highway connecting Baghdad to Kirkuk province. In May, the number of such incidents in that area was 30, while in March it was seven, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on Islamic State who advises the Iraqi government.
In one incident on June 17, three Shi'ite men were kidnapped by Islamic State militants disguised as policemen at a checkpoint on the highway. Ten days later their mutilated corpses were discovered, rigged with explosives to kill anyone who found them.
Speaking in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala surrounded by children wearing photos of their slain fathers around their necks, Bassem Khudair, a relative of the men, said security forces were uncooperative.
He had implored the soldiers who found the men's bullet-ridden car to pursue the kidnappers but was refused.
"We went alone, bearing personal responsibility, as three of our own had been taken and we couldn't just watch," he said. "Six of us, all civilians, walked for about 10 or 12 kilometres. We found their documents scattered on the ground as we walked."
The next day, he received a phone call from his brother. The men were alive but held by Islamic State. One of the kidnappers had said they would be executed if the government did not release all female Sunni prisoners.
The kidnapper then called Khudair daily. Khudair informed the government but none of Iraq's intelligence agencies offered to trace the caller's location, he said.
Ten days later, the kidnapper told Khudair the men were dead. Military commanders in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin ducked responsibility for retrieving the bodies.
Diyala Provincial Council Chairman Ali al-Dani said the advantage currently lay with Islamic State. "The terrorists now are moving in small groups that are hard to track. Intelligence work is needed," he said.
"The situation is confusing, and the reason is the chaos within the security forces. There isn't one command leading security in the province. This strengthens Daesh," said Salahuddin Provincial Council Chairman Ahmed al-Kareem, using a pejorative term for Islamic State.
That kind of disarray among the security forces has allowed Islamic State to stage a comeback, according to military, police, intelligence, and local elected officials.
They said poor coordination, meagre support from the central government, and a culture of avoiding responsibility are hindering efforts to contain the group, which continues to stage a steady stream of lower-level attacks in addition to the spike in kidnap and murder.
A military spokesman did not respond to phone calls and written requests for comment. The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said in a statement that it "has no safe haven in Iraq".
For a graphic on Islamic State incidents, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2Lc7jkz
HIT AND RUN
The militants have regrouped in the Hemrin mountain range in the northeast, which extends from Diyala, on the border with Iran, crossing northern Salahuddin and southern Kirkuk, and overlooks Iraq's main highway. Officials describe the area as a "triangle of death".
Military and intelligence officials gave varying estimates of how many Islamic State fighters remain active in Iraq.
Hashimi puts the number at more than 1,000, with around 500 in desert areas and the rest in the mountains.
Al Qaeda once held sway over most of Iraq's Sunni areas until it was beaten by U.S. and Iraqi troops and their tribal allies during the "surge" campaign of 2006-2007.
Its remnants hid in the desert between Syria and Iraq and later turned into Islamic State. Some officials fear an even more radical group could emerge if there are gaps in security.
"Filth wandering the desert for a loaf of bread is what they are," said an intelligence official in Tikrit, the Salahuddin provincial capital. Fighters are resorting to Al Qaeda's tactics: quick attacks then retreating into the desert.
Even though they possess machine guns, anti-tank weapons and mines, the militants cannot penetrate cities because they no longer enjoy support among those Sunnis who once sympathised with them, said Eid Khalaf, Salahuddin's deputy chief of police.
"They can't get food or weapons from citizens," he said. "Their operations are primitive; they can't send a car bomb into a city."
Each Islamic State cell contains between three and five fighters, said Diyala Operations Commander Lieutenant General Muzher al-Azawi. He said there were no more than 75 fighters in the province.
"They hide in the mountains, making it hard to find them. They plant explosives, use hit-and-run tactics, and snipers. They set up fake checkpoints for kidnappings," he said.
'CITIES WILL FALL'
Numerous attempts to track down and kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have failed, and his fighters are still active in other Arab states.
In Syria, Islamic State still holds some territory but has suffered militarily. In Egypt, it is concentrated in the sparsely populated northern Sinai desert. It holds no territory but conducts hit-and-run attacks.
Islamic State has tried to rebuild in Libya through mobile units in the desert and sleeper cells in northern cities.
The group has exploited the ethnic and sectarian divide in Iraq. Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought together against Islamic State. Now ties are strained over a Kurdish bid for independence last year which Baghdad stifled.
Lack of coordination has caused a security vacuum in disputed territories, from which Iraqi forces dislodged the Kurds, creating opportunities for Islamic State.
"Are we expected to go into Diyala and help them clear the area then withdraw again? We are not being attacked in those areas, Iraqi forces are. We are not there, they expelled us," said a Kurdish security official.
Sunni tribesmen helped U.S. and Iraqi forces turn the tide in the war against al Qaeda. Local tribes now say they need help as Islamic State claws its way back.
"We know these areas better than the security forces and at least 280 of us have been kidnapped or killed," said Shammar tribal chief Ali Nawaf.
Last month, militants drove into a village inhabited by Shammar tribesmen and kidnapped 30 men, he said. The next day, eight bodies were found tied up and blindfolded. Nawaf says he has 1,400 men ready to fight but they need help from the government in Baghdad.
"Either the government sends more forces, or we raise Daesh flags. If we don't plug this hole now, entire cities will fall," Nawaf said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baquba, Tikrit, and Kerbala; Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)