RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, May 18, (Agencies): A series of deadly attacks by Islamic State operatives in and around Baghdad may be a sign that the militants are “reverting to their roots” as a terrorist organization, the top US commander for the Middle East said Wednesday.
Army Gen Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said this does not mean IS has given up its ambition to create a so-called caliphate. But he said it marks a new turn in tactics aimed at diverting attention from the group’s recent battlefield losses.
Speaking to reporters while traveling to the Middle East, Votel said the attacks that have rocked Baghdad over the past week, killing upward of 200 civilians, are an illustration of the dynamic nature of the war.
“We have to respect our enemies and respect their ability to adapt and adjust on the battlefield,” he said.
“In this regard, some of the attacks we’re seeing in Baghdad — I think we are seeing a manifestation of that. We are seeing them see opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities,” he added. “I think they believe it will cause the Iraqi government to divert forces, divert effort, divert intellectual horsepower to solving those problems” as opposed to priorities like recapturing the IS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq.
Now that IS has lost 40 percent or more of the terrain it once controlled in Iraq, “they may be reverting in some regards back to their terrorist roots,” he said.
Votel, who served in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, became head of Central Command two months ago after serving as commander of Special Operations Command. In his new post he oversees not only US military operations in Iraq and Syria but across the greater Middle East, including in Afghanistan.
His visit this week to the Middle East comes amid concern about political unrest in Baghdad and the slow pace of Iraqi military operations to recapture Mosul.
Votel said he sees reason for “a little concern” about political paralysis that has gripped the Iraq government in recent weeks.
Iraq’s military entered the remote western town of Rutba on Tuesday in a fresh offensive against Islamic State aimed at cutting off the militants’ supply route to neighbouring Syria.
Counter-terrorism forces, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, entered the town from the south and took control of al-Intisar district, the force’s spokesman Sabah al-Numan told Reuters.
“We expect we will be able to reach the centre of Rutba tomorrow morning,” Numan said by telephone, indicating it was about one kilometre (mile) from the forces’ current position.
He said they faced little resistance in breaching Islamic State defences, but expected the insurgents had holed up in buildings and would force street battles in Rutba, 360 km (225 miles) west of Baghdad.
The military has pushed the jihadists out of much of the northern and western territories they seized in 2014, but the group still controls large areas and key cities including Mosul, which Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake this year.
Rutba is important as a “support zone” which Islamic State was using to stage operations into battle areas further north and east, said coalition spokesman US Army Col. Steve Warren.
He told reporters in Baghdad last week the town was not as heavily defended as Ramadi and Falluja, further east, predicting the group maintained up to “several hundred” fighters at any given time.
The Iraqi army, federal police and Sunni tribal fighters are also participating in the offensive, which began on Monday when those forces began approaching Rutba from multiple directions.
Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his armed followers to withdraw from the streets of Baghdad districts that have been hit by deadly bombings claimed by Islamic State, an aide said on Wednesday.
Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, had deployed hundreds of militiamen in Sadr City and five other mainly Shi’ite areas of the capital after he accused the government of failing to prevent the attacks by the hardline Sunni group.
At least 77 people were killed and more than 140 wounded by three bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday, extending the deadliest spate of attacks in the Iraqi capital so far this year.
The cleric “ordered that no arm be displayed in public, avoid friction with the security forces and avoid being dragged into violence,” one aide said.
Witnesses said Saraya al-Salam pulled out of the streets of Sadr City overnight on Tuesday.
The bombings cranked up pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to solve a political crisis brought on by his attempt to reshuffle the cabinet in a drive to tackle corruption.
The crisis has crippled parliament and hampered government action, creating space for more insurgent attacks on civilians.