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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

Iraq still fighting ISIL, Abadi admits 

Security officials have repeatedly warned the country's north could fall back into insurgents' hands

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks at a press conference, at the Iraq Energy Forum in Baghdad. Karim Kadim / AP
Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks at a press conference, at the Iraq Energy Forum in Baghdad. Karim Kadim / AP

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi admitted on Wednesday that the country is engaged in a fight against ISIL sleeper cells, a climbdown from repeated claims of the insurgents being defeated.

Mr Abadi declared victory over the terror group in December after security forces drove them out of the last pockets of territory under their control. But recent months have seen ISIL remnants carry out attacks in the north, killing dozens of civilians in an offensive that could disrupt elections in May.

Iraqi and American security officials have repeatedly warned that territory in the north could easily fall back into insurgent hands.

Mr Abadi's comments, after the recent uptick in unrest, exposed the risk he took when he said ISIL had effectively been disabled, analysts said.

Speaking at an energy forum in Baghdad where he was seeking to drum up foreign investment, Mr Abadi backtracked on past statements, saying that although "we have defeated ISIL militarily, we have to eliminate the militants' sleeper cells that are active today."

He added: "The government is committed to uprooting terror cells and is seeking to rebuild the country's infrastructure."

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During the past few months, security officials have said that between 150 to 200 armed forces members have been killed nationwide.

Last week ISIL claimed responsibility for six attacks at fake checkpoints, including one that destroyed a number of oil tankers. Other attacks have included strikes on oil installations and convoys, with the group claiming to have captured weapons and vehicles.

Mr Al Abadi pledged to send more forces to the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk to continue "clearing operations".

"Iraq's new dawn will witness a historic transformation of our nation," he said.

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the University of Singapore said that although ISIL has been "seriously diminished by developments in the region" its threat remains.

"The problem is that 'triumph' over an organisation like ISIL was never going to be a singular event and was always going to be a process. I do not think Abadi jumped the gun in his announcement but I do think he has to carefully manage expectations," Mr Haddad told The National.

Since Mr Al Abadi's declaration of victory, officials have begun a series of court cases for people accused of connections to ISIL or suspected of other terror-related offences.

The central criminal court has issued number of sentences against ISIL wives, ranging from long prison terms to death by hanging.

Last month, a court in Baghdad also sentenced a Turkish woman to death, while 10 other foreign ISIL wives received life in prison for terrorism offences. A German woman has been sentenced to death for providing logistical support to the insurgents.

US Air Force Brig. Gen Andrew Croft said on Tuesday that the militants' holdout across Iraq demands attention.

"There are still remnants of ISIL in the Kirkuk to Makhmour area. That's where we've done the last few operations with Iraqi security forces," he said at a Pentagon press briefing.

Another area of concern for an ISIL resurgence is in the Anbar region, west of Baghdad, long a bastion of Sunni militancy.

"As far as the numbers we find in the Anbar desert, they are [small]," Gen Croft said. "They're not coming from Syria that we're seeing, although that would be a concern in the future and we're fully aware of that possibility. But the numbers that are out there, it is small numbers, and we think they are just existing or trying to survive out there in the desert."

Iraqi security forces announced on Wednesday the capture of an ISIL commander in an operation in Anbar.

Since the end of major anti-ISIL operations in Iraq, the US-led coalition has moved air assets to Syria and Afghanistan, but it is continuing to support Iraqi operations.

A Pentagon report released in November said there were approximately nine thousand US troops in Iraq as of late September.