Norwegian military official: Coronavirus pandemic helping the Islamic State terrorist group
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- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
Islamic State militants hide in sparsely populated farmlands in Iraq from where they stage attacks on Iraqi forces scrambling to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease, the head of the 70-man Norwegian contingent in the country said.
Iraq is not just facing the global pandemic but also a resurgence of attacks by ISIS and a financial crunch as oil prices plummet to historic lows — a crisis for a nation depending on crude exports to fund 90 percent of its state expenditure.
The militants “reside in agricultural areas and are thus not particularly susceptible to the virus infection,” Lt. Col. Stein Grongstad told a Norwegian newspaper in remarks published Wednesday.
In recent weeks, they have been targeting Iraqi forces “that are not currently coordinated to the same extent as before the virus struck.”
Grongstad described the situation as a “paradox,” that at a time when the world is grappling with the pandemic, ISIS attacks are on the rise.
The virus is compounding longtime concerns among security and UN experts that the group would stage a comeback after its so-called “caliphate,” which once encompassed a third of Iraq and Syria, was brought down last year.
Multiple factors help the militants. The number of Iraqi military personnel on duty has dropped 50 percent because of virus prevention measures.
Also, territorial disputes between Baghdad and authorities from the northern Kurdish autonomy zone have left parts of three provinces without law enforcement. The rugged landscape is difficult to police.
The uptick also coincides with a pullout of US-led coalition forces from bases in western Iraq, Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in line with a drawdown conceived in December.
“ISIS has been moving the fighting from Syria to Iraq … (and ) is strengthening, both financially and militarily,” Grongstad said.
Since 2017, a Norwegian contingent has been based in western Iraq’s vast and mostly desert Anbar province, where it trains and advises Iraqi security forces.
Iraq has reported over 2,700 cases of coronavirus infections, including 109 deaths.