US airstrike kills top Islamic State leader in Iraq

Workers clean a bloody street near Tayaran Square in Baghdad after a deadly double-suicide bombing on Jan 21, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BAGHDAD (NYTIMES) - US airstrikes in a joint mission with Iraqi forces have killed the top Islamic State group leader in Iraq, an attack aimed at stemming the group's resurgence and exacting retribution for a deadly double-suicide bombing in Baghdad last week.

The Islamic State group commander, Jabbar Salman Ali Farhan al-Issawi, 43, known as Abu Yasser, was killed on Wednesday (Wed 27) near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, US-led military coalition and Iraqi officials said on Friday.

The Islamic State group no longer holds territory in Iraq but has continued to carry out deadly attacks. The question of what kind of force is required to keep the group in check has been at the heart of US and Iraqi negotiations over reducing the number of US troops in Iraq, and the US role in the raid this week illustrates Iraq's continued reliance on the US military.

A coalition spokesperson, Col. Wayne Marotto, called al-Issawi's death "a significant blow" to the Islamic State group's efforts to regroup.

Al-Issawi coordinated the group's operations in Iraq, counterterrorism experts said. Marotto said he was responsible for developing and relaying guidance to Islamic State fighters and for helping to expand the Islamic State presence in Iraq.

He said that nine other Islamic State fighters were killed in the operation.

Marotto said that Iraqi counterterrorism forces led the operation with coalition air, intelligence and surveillance support.

The US-led coalition has a policy of not commenting on which countries conduct specific airstrikes. But senior Iraqi security officials, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to release the information, said that US aircraft carried out the strikes.

Iraqi officials said that the attack on an underground hideout avenged the deaths of the 32 Iraqis killed in the Islamic State attack on a Baghdad market last week. More than 100 others were wounded in the attack, the deadliest in Baghdad in four years.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was targeting Shiite Muslims and Iraqi security forces.

"We promised and fulfilled," Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi tweeted about the operation that killed al-Issawi. "I gave my word to pursue Daesh terrorists, we gave them a thundering response," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

In addition to the airstrikes, the operation included raids on Islamic State group guesthouses by Iraqi counterterrorism forces, according to an Iraqi military statement.

Al-Issawi, originally from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, crossed back into Iraq six months ago through the porous border with the Kurdish-controlled sector of eastern Syria.

Iraqi officials described al-Issawi as the "deputy caliph," or second in command, to the top Islamic State group leader. That rank could not be independently confirmed.

Little is known about the overall head of the group, identified by the Islamic State group as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, or its top command structure. Al-Qurayshi succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died when he detonated a suicide vest as US forces raided his hideout in Syria in 2019.

While operational commanders like al-Issawi don't get as much attention as top terrorist leaders like Baghdadi or al-Qurayshi, counterterrorism officials said they play pivotal roles.

"Militants like Baghdadi get the lion's share of attention, but operatives like al-Issawi do the dirty work for groups like ISIS, and serve as the sinew between higher and lower echelons of the organization," said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm.

After recent reductions by the Trump administration, the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.

"From an operational point of view it's important that ISIS is disrupted as much as possible but it obviously needs a lot of follow-up," said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based fellow with the Century Foundation.

"ISIS has shown that it's quite resilient and able to pop up in small cells, particularly in rural areas and in difficult terrain, and also targeting territory that is very difficult for the Iraqi forces to constantly police."

Jiyad said he believed US forces would gain goodwill through their help in anti-Islamic State group operations. But he said the US drone strike that killed a senior Iraqi security official along with the Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year carried more weight in bolstering opposition to US troops in Iraq.

After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel U.S. forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.

"The presence of U.S. forces is part of a larger issue not related to Daesh," Jiyad said. "These sort of things you can't just wash away with 'the US has been helpful against ISIS.'"

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.