Iraqi leaders need to step up efforts to prevent an ISIS comeback, says Canadian commander
"(ISIS is) still very much trying to be an insurgency," says Brig.-Gen. Colin Keiver
The Islamic State may have been defeated on the battlefield, but the political and social grievances that spawned the extremist movement are still a long way from resolution in Iraq, said the outgoing commander of the Canadian contingent in the Middle East.
The war-battered country was plunged into a long round of sectarian bloodletting during the U.S. occupation — a nightmare from which it is only now slowly recovering, Brig.-Gen. Colin Keiver told CBC News in a recent telephone interview.
Over the long term, Keiver said, defeating ISIS once and for all will involve some form of reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, in tandem with reconstruction and the restoration of basic services, starting with water and electricity.
"We see local community leaders ... mayors or whoever, stepping up and leading and bringing people together to solve issues at the local level. It's not happening as quickly at the national level," Keiver said from Kuwait, where the Canadian mission headquarters has been based since 2014.
On Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition overseeing the campaign against ISIS said it backed up Iraqi counterterrorism teams in an assault last week on extremist "sleeper cells" in the mountainous Wadi Ashai area in northern Iraq.
ISIS is down, not out
Keiver said ISIS is trying hard to regroup.
"They are still very much trying to be an insurgency in both Iraq and northeast Syria," he said.
"For example, we see them trying to move men and equipment along the rivers in Iraq. They're occupying the mountainous areas in the desert."
The raids and occasional air strikes are meant "to keep the pressure on them so that they can't become something bigger," Keiver said.
Iraq's stagnant economy, high unemployment and anger at the U.S. following the withdrawal of the last American troops in 2011 made many Iraqi cities fertile ground for extremist recruitment. Once ISIS entered Iraq from its base in Syria, American-trained local security forces melted away.
It took almost three years of a conventional military campaign to dislodge them through a series of battles that left many cities — including Mosul, the country's second-largest — in ruins.
A year ago, the international community pledged $30 billion to help rebuild the country — far less than the $88 billion the government in Baghdad said it needed.
Some international experts have speculated that donor fatigue played a big part in that funding shortfall, while the deep political divisions following last year's closely fought election have increased Iraqis' skepticism about the country's stability.
Almost a year after parliamentary elections, Iraq still doesn't have a defence minister or an interior minister.
Keiver, who will soon be rotated home, said the clock is ticking for Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to make necessary reforms.
"They've gotten to a point where they've given themselves a window of opportunity to make those changes," he said. "It is very much up to the government of Iraq now to start doing these things."
Last month, the Liberal government extended Canada's military involvement in Iraq to the end of March 2021. The extension of the mission, which began in the fall of 2014, came as no surprise, since the Liberal government agreed last summer to lead the NATO training mission in Baghdad.
Canada provides 250 soldiers, a headquarters, security forces and transportation to as many as a dozen other alliance members training Iraqi forces to handle security on their own.
Separately and distinctly, Canadian special forces also are providing direct advice and assistance to Iraqi troops in the northern part of the country.
Overall, the military has an authorized strength of 850 troops throughout the Middle East.