According to Voice of America, many Iraqis have found in recent weeks that ISIS is more deadly than Covid-19, especially in the disputed northern governorates between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil.
Iraq announced the first case of the virus in late February, and the country’s Ministry of Health has since reported 13 deaths due to the virus in the disputed governorates of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh.
However, the killings of civilians and security forces reported by ISIS in those governorates have reached at least 50 people.
“Certainty, ISIS is stronger here,” said Hisham al-Hashemi, a terrorism expert at the Center for Global Policy in Baghdad.
He told Voice of America: “In some of these areas, there are no security forces either from the federal government or the Kurdish (Peshmerga) Kurdish military.”
To prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, the Iraqi authorities imposed a strict ban, preventing “unnecessary” traffic, public assemblies, and companies nationwide.
These restrictions yielded good results, but in May the situation changed as the country witnessed a significant increase in cases of infection, when the government eased the curfew.
As of Friday, the Ministry of Health had reported 9,846 cases and 258 deaths.
While Iraq is struggling to contain the new wave of the infectious virus, it appears that the disputed areas are the least vulnerable to this wave, due, according to some experts, to the strict closure, which limits the movement of people in the region.
In 2014, when ISIS captured Mosul in a major attack, the Peshmerga took control of the northern governorates after Iraqi army units abandoned their positions, but were forced out in October 2017 when they were stormed by the Iraqi army and PMF militias.
The Iraqi army and PMF are now in control of urban areas, but most of the rural terrain along the Hamrin mountain range is still restricted territory, and local intelligence sources indicate that up to 3,000 ISIS fighters may use this area as a bastion where they hide, train, and plan attacks.
With Iraq’s attention largely diverted to fighting the Corona virus, experts warn that ISIS faces less pressure in disputed territories and is ready to realign its sleeper cells.
Although ISIS has not claimed responsibility for every incident in the region, it has adopted major attacks, including a series of coordinated attacks last May that killed nearly a dozen members of the PMF.
In an audio recording released in late May, ISIS spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Quraishi encouraged ISIS fighters and sympathizers to increase their activities against the goals of the Iraqi government.
“Over the past two months, ISIS activities have been occurring almost daily,” said Mohsen Dosky, a member of the ruling party on the Security Committee in the Kurdistan Parliament.
He explained: “There is no ruler in that region. The return of the Peshmerga to the region was necessary to restore stability and ensure a permanent defeat for ISIS.” He continued: “Iraq cannot control it and the Peshmerga are not allowed to return to it.”
But the Iraqi government says that urban security in the provinces remains largely under control, and the government, led by new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi, has sent reinforcements from the Internal Security Forces to Kirkuk to counter ISIS remnants.
Some Iraq observers confirmed that the escalation of attacks on the disputed areas does not mean the return of the material succession to ISIS, however, they warn that the organization could increase ethnic and sectarian tensions.
According to David Pollock, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a more enduring strategy to defeat ISIS in the region requires Baghdad and Erbil to compromise on the region and unify its forces against the organization.
He said that the presence of American forces provides an opportunity for both sides to reach a solution, adding: “Sooner or later, external forces will begin to gradually move away from this, which reduces their presence and support, so you should take advantage of that while they are there.”