Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast emphasized that although the Islamic State has seen conventional defeat on the battlefields of Iraq, the war against militants will continue. With the launch of a major military operation to retake an area once held by the Islamic State and where multiple militant groups have since become active, that analysis has proved accurate.
The Islamic State may have lost the battle for Iraq, but the war to free the country from militant threats is far from over. On Feb. 7, Iraqi security forces (ISF) launched an attack in the Tuz Khurmatu district in northeast Iraq against militants known as the White Flags. The attack was a large-scale military operation, including air support and eight brigades from the Popular Mobilization Units, the Iraqi army and the federal police. According to Maj. Gen. Thamer al-Husseini, commander of the federal police's elite rapid response units, the operation was a success with five oil wells secured and dozens of improvised explosive devices dismantled.
Since the White Flags group first began to gain notoriety in late 2017, the insurgency in the Tuz Khurmatu district has evolved. After ISF launched operations in the region in October 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga forces that were keeping the region stable withdrew. In their stead, multiple militant groups sprang up. Among them were the White Flags, which appear to be composed of about several hundred fighters, including former Islamic State members as well as former members of groups with ties to Kurdish militias. Looting and terrorist attacks have become more common in the region, and the White Flags have carried out car bombings and kidnappings in the past several weeks.
In recent weeks, the oil resources in eastern Tuz Khurmatu have gained in strategic importance. With the oil export pipeline to Turkey shut down and Iraq unwilling to work with the Kurdistan Regional Government to use the region's oil import infrastructure, Baghdad has been forced to sign a one-year agreement with Iran on oil swaps for Kirkuk's oil production. Iraq has been hoping to deliver 30,000 to 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) from Kirkuk to Kermanshah, Iran, by truck. But a tanker truck can carry only 150 to 300 barrels, making the size of such a delivery operation quite significant. This means that even if Iraq reaches only half of its target of 30,000 bpd, it will have to send 75 to 100 shipments each day. Such an operation would require traveling through the territory where the White Flags group was active, making seizures or attacks by that or other militant groups a significant risk.
Though the Islamic State has been defeated in the area, some of its former members have reportedly become members of the White Flags, and other militant groups have become active in their former territory. And as long as militants respond to defeat by trading one flag for another, more fighting will be required to ensure the Iraqi government and people can go about their business without fear of attacks.