© Reuters. An Iraqi man sells rosaries in a shop in Fallujah
By John Davison, Ahmed and Rasheed FALLUJAH, Iraq (Reuters) – Abu Arkan Ibrahim picked up a rifle and joined the Iraqi insurgency against US troops when they occupied his hometown of Fallujah in 2003. He was badly burned in the fighting. Now, he fears the departure of the Americans he once fought with. For the past 17 years, the municipal clerk has seen his city fall to the United States, al Qaeda, the Islamic State and, most recently, Iraqi forces fighting alongside Iranian-backed paramilitaries. Ibrahim said the presence of US troops in recent years helped suppress remaining Islamic State militants and curb Iranian-backed militias, mutual enemies accused by Iraqi officials of targeting the local population. The reduction in US troops is creating a security vacuum, Ibrahim said, making Fallujah more dangerous. “I’d rather have the Americans here than the alternatives,” the 37-year-old said. Ibrahim’s assessment is shared by many security officials, former combatants and residents in the northern and western regions of the country that comprise up to a third of Iraqi territory, former insurgent strongholds loyal to Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. They say the Islamic State and Iranian-backed paramilitaries will gain the most from Washington‘s troop reduction. They point to an increase in attacks by the Islamic State and fear that Iranian-backed militias will use this violence to justify their entrenchment. Last month, the United States completed a reduction of its forces in Iraq to 2,500 troops. That’s about half the level of less than a year ago. Recent months have seen more than 25 deadly attacks that Iraqi officials attribute to Islamic State militants. Last month, the group staged its biggest attack in years with a suicide bombing in the capital Baghdad, which killed more than 30 people. The US embassy in Baghdad declined to comment. The US-led military coalition of 80 nations fighting the Islamic State in Iraq said it carried out 10 attacks on militant targets in Iraq in December alone. A coalition official said there were no plans to reverse the reduction and said Iraqi forces were capable of handling the current Islamic State insurgency with current levels of coalition support. Washington‘s contingent is the largest in the coalition force, which includes 900 soldiers from other countries. Still, the US presence in Iraq is small compared to the 170,000 troops that were stationed in the country after its invasion. Parts of Iraq’s 300,000 military personnel operate in the western and northern areas of the country. The paramilitaries number at least 100,000, with a significant portion in the north and west. Analysts and security officials estimate there are thousands of Islamic State fighters. A US official acknowledged that the withdrawal over the past year has reduced US military capabilities in Iraq, but stressed that US assistance has continued. “We are still working hard to empower and support our Iraqi partners,” the official said, adding that the Iraqis were already operating more independently. The official admitted that the Islamic State remains a determined enemy. “So it is not a bloodless future,” the official said. The administration of President Joe Biden has given no indication that it intends to significantly reverse the reduction initiated under his predecessor Donald Trump. The Pentagon said the Biden administration is conducting a review of the number and position of troops, including in Iraq. An Iraqi government spokesman said the reduction has not affected its ability to contain the Islamic State. “There is permanent coordination” with the remaining US forces, he said. Most Iraqis are opposed to foreign influence. Some welcome America’s withdrawal. But many, especially in Sunni regions, say they would choose a small US military presence over greater power for pro-Iran militias. Iranian-aligned paramilitaries say the Islamic State insurgency against the Iraqi army forces them to stay in Sunni-majority regions to fight the militants. They promise to expel foreign forces from Iraq if Biden does not commit to a total withdrawal. Paramilitaries aligned with Iran deny their involvement in attacks or human rights abuses. Islamic State fighters controlled almost a third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017. They now occupy remote areas of the desert and mountain ranges. They regularly denounce attacks that kill Shiite soldiers and militiamen in Iraq. BAGGED ISLAMIC STATE Fallujah and other major cities in Sunni regions that were once under Islamic State control have begun to revive. Newly paved main roads run past busy shops and restaurants. But outside of urban centers, buildings demolished in battle remain in ruins. Thousands of displaced families have yet to return. Accompanied by his young son, Ibrahim spoke at a busy intersection in Fallujah that in October saw the city’s first motorcycle bomb in two years. Iraqi officials blamed the Islamic State. There has been no claim or denial of responsibility by the group. “In recent months, we have seen more Daesh attacks in all these areas,” said Salah al-Essawi, a Sunni paramilitary commander in the area, using an alternate term for Islamic State. The attacks include an assault that killed two security personnel after the Fallujah bombing in October. Essawi and other Iraqi security officials attribute the killings to the Islamic State, which has not commented. Some Iraqi military officials say the increase in violence is largely due to the reduction in the US presence. An Iraqi army officer working with the US-led coalition cited an example of the Iraqi army’s dependence on the United States: a recent airstrike that killed a senior leader of the Islamic State. It was a joint effort by the United States and Iraq, he said. “Our troops were chasing him, but they would have had trouble finding where he was hiding were it not for US air support,” the officer said. He said the coalition carries out fewer airstrikes against Islamic State targets than it used to. The coalition official said the US-led forces provided air support to Iraqi special forces for that operation. The Iraqi government spokesman said the operation was led by Iraqi forces. GROUPS ALIGNED WITH IRAN Shiite paramilitaries say that as the Islamic State escalates its insurgency, Iraqi forces need their help. The Iran-aligned groups are part of a Baghdad-led paramilitary umbrella that works alongside Iraqi security forces to police remote areas of the former Islamic State. “There are still many threats and the duty of the factions is to deal with Daesh or any other foreign threat,” Nasr al-Shammari, a senior official with the paramilitary Harakat al-Nujaba, told Reuters weeks before Biden’s inauguration. Shammari wants the United States to come out, saying the presence of his troops fuels instability. Iraqis who want US forces to stay are a politically motivated minority, he said. Many residents of Fallujah and nearby towns fear being caught in retaliation for the increasing attacks by the Islamic State, both from Iraqi security forces and even more from Shiite paramilitaries. Ibrahim said he has been detained by both over the years on suspicion of ties to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which he denies. Essawi, the Sunni paramilitary leader, said Shiite militias have been emboldened by talks about the US downsizing. Forces aligned with Iran, Essawi said, have repositioned their flags at some checkpoints they had planned to abandon. “We hope Biden doesn’t leave us in his hands,” he said. (John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed report from Fallujah, Iraq; additional reporting from Phil Stewart in Washington, DC and Kamal Ayash, Jamal Badrani, and Ghazwan Hassan in Iraq).