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Neighbourhood Watch:
Extremist Sleeper Cells Re-Appear At The Gates Of Baghdad

Ibrahim Saleh
The fight against the extremist Islamic State group goes on in rural areas around Baghdad. And security forces are enlisting the aid of locals to finish the job.
27.07.2017  |  Baghdad
An Iraqi army officer meets with the tribal leaders of Tarmiyah. (photo: Iraqi MoD)
An Iraqi army officer meets with the tribal leaders of Tarmiyah. (photo: Iraqi MoD)

Something happens almost daily: A suicide bomber trying to blow himself up is thwarted by a soldier at a roadblock, who shoots him before he can detonate his explosives. Another suicide bomber tries again only a few meters away but is stopped in the same way, by a different soldier.

The local media are not covering these events in the Tarmiyah district, an area that is often described as being part of the Baghdad belt, the ring of more rural towns and neighbourhoods around the Iraqi capital. However, locals on social media continuously document the events. And according to their reports, there are one or two incidents every day, involving snipers, masked gunmen, explosives or a suicide bomber.

Anyone who hosts a terrorist is a terrorist. Anyone who carries a weapon against the security forces is a terrorist.

The reports are often confirmed by local security forces - for example, on July 8, a US-led team attacked what was later confirmed to be an IS cell in Tarmiyah; seven IS fighters were killed in the raid - as well as by news agencies or other media associated with the IS group that are also publishing reports of IS "successes" in Tarmiyah.

The fact that this is happening in Tarmiyah has surprised some. The Iraqi military conducted a special operation here in April to try and hunt down IS members who might still be in the neighbourhood; the area has been mostly clear of IS since late 2014.

Afterwards the Tarmiyah area was declared safe by the Baghdad Operations Command, which is responsible for security in the capital. And people were encouraged to return at that stage, says Sabih al-Salman, one of Tarmiyah’s tribal leaders. However, as he says, the security forces are still cutting off streets, raiding different areas and searching for wanted people. Which means it is not actually as safe as we were told, al-Salman argues.

It seems clear that there are IS sleeper cells hiding in abandoned houses here, or keeping weapons and explosives there.

Tarmiyah connects four provinces: Diyala, Salahaddin, Anbar and to the south, Baghdad. If the IS group can infiltrate this area, it will make carrying out attacks in Baghdad easier – fighters can be funnelled from those other provinces into the city through Tarmiyah.

It is also a relatively rural area, with many orchards and farms, where extremists could hide, and it takes just half an hour to travel from the centre of Baghdad to Tarmiyah, which is about 50 kilometres away.

 

An Iraqi soldier with a display of weapons taken from extremists in Tarmiyah.

 

The locals in Tarmiyah do appear to want to protect themselves from the IS group. “It is the duty of the people to act against any of the kinds of activities that will darken this district again," al-Salman protests. “If any of the sons of any of the local tribes becomes a member of the IS group, then the tribe should disown him," he insists.

On July 10, Tarmiyah residents signed an agreement with the Iraqi security forces that entailed how the community might cooperate with the military. For example, should an IS cell be found on a certain property, then the property owner who failed to notice it, or report it, would be held responsible. The person would be punished by both Iraq law and by his or her own tribe.

Senior Iraqi army officer, Hussein al-Maliki, told locals that any tribal leader who allowed IS fighters to meet or live on his property, say, in their orchard or similar, would have to face repercussions.

“All of the tribes in Tarmiyah signed the agreement and everyone will support the security forces absolutely,” says Sayid al-Jassim al-Mashhadani, another tribal leader in Tarmiyah. “Anyone who hosts a terrorist is a terrorist,” he stressed. “Anyone who carries a weapon against the security forces is a terrorist - and should be treated as such by them:”

The security forces are really hoping this plan works. They believe that most of the attacks taking place in Tarmiyah are happening because of IS sleeper cells and that the only way to wipe these out is with the cooperation of the locals.

“We believe the sleeper cells are only small,” al-Maliki said. “And that if the citizens and their leaders help us, then we will be able to eliminate them.”

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