The blast in Hilla that killed over 100 people , mostly Iranian pilgrims, reinforces the fear that the Islamic State remains a potent force in Iraq despite recent military setbacks. By attacking a town located between Najaf and Karbala, two of Shia Islam’s holiest places, at a time when Shia Muslims around the world travel to Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the IS has left no doubt about who it is targeting. Besides, the attack came nearly six weeks after Iraqi government troops, aided by Iran and the U.S., started a massive operation to retake Mosul, which has been under IS control since June 2014. It is not difficult to understand the IS’s strategy. In the past, when its bases came under attack, the group had used terror to strike faraway civilian centres. Needless to say, this is a major security failure for the Iraqi government. When the pilgrimage season began, many had warned that the IS would make an attempt to attack around Karbala. What is more worrisome for the government troops is the battlefield flexibility the IS is demonstrating. It is fighting a conventional war against the government troops in Mosul while unleashing guerrilla attacks elsewhere.
More than a month after the battle for Mosul began , government troops are yet to make any substantial territorial gains. On the other side, civilian casualties are relatively high. According to the UN, around 20 per cent of the injured in Mosul are civilians, compared to the average 5 per cent in other recent anti-IS operations. Once Iraqi troops, largely Shia, enter the city that is home to a million people who are mostly Sunni, casualties could be higher. The IS, given its history of exploiting Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions to its advantage, may be waiting just for that. Against this background, the Iraqi government faces huge challenges. First, it has to make real battleground advances in Mosul with minimum civilian casualties to raise the pressure on the IS while boosting its capability to fight potential terror strikes. In the last two major terror strikes alone, the IS has killed over 400 people in Iraq. If it continues to terrorise civilians, the already feeble Iraqi government would suffer a further loss of credibility among the public. Second, the government has to guard against falling into the sectarian trap that the IS has set. In previous anti-IS battles, Iraqi troops were accused of targeting Sunni civilians. If Baghdad doesn’t win over the Sunnis living in its war-ravaged north and north-west, it will not get a grip on the cycle of terror.