UN envoy: Islamic State revival in Iraq must be prevented

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Iraq called Tuesday for "wide-based international support" to prevent Islamic State extremists from regaining a foothold in the country.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert also told the Security Council that if the issue of thousands of returning Islamic State fighters and their families from Syria to Iraq isn't managed properly "we risk creating a new breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists."

She stressed that this "is not just an Iraqi problem" because there are non-Iraqi fighters as well, and she implicitly criticized some unnamed countries that are maintaining a "strategic distance" from their own nationals.

The Islamic State extremist group, which seized Iraqi cities and declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate in a large swathe of territory it took control of in Syria and Iraq in 2014, was formally declared defeated in Iraq in 2017 following a three-year bloody battle that left tens of thousands dead and Iraqi cities in ruins. But the group's sleeper cells continue to launch attacks in different parts of Iraq.

Hennis-Plasschaert said that on an encouraging note the capital Baghdad "is opening up" and "very soon" the high-security Green Zone where many government offices and embassies are located "will no longer exist." But she said the security situation in the capital and throughout the country will require close monitoring because the threat from the Islamic State extremist group "is still out there."

The U.N. envoy quoted an unnamed representative of the U.S.-led coalition in the country as saying recently that IS "is resurging. They rested, moved and are active."

Hennis-Plasschaert said "another dominant security concern" is "armed actors" operating outside the government who are engaged in illegal or criminal activities which undermine state authority, weaken the economy and prevent the return of thousands of displaced people.

She briefed the Security Council after it unanimously adopted a resolution extending the mandate of the U.N. political mission in Iraq that she leads until May 31, 2020.

More broadly, Hennis-Plasschaert also criticized political infighting in Iraq that has blocked key ministerial appointments a year after national elections, and corruption which is "pervasive at all levels in Iraq."

She alluded to escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran which have raised concerns that Iraq could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.

Hennis-Plasschaert said she was pleased to report that Iraq's leaders continue to reach out to their regional and international counterparts, positioning the country "as a reliable partner."

"Iraq could well be a stabilizing factor in a turbulent region and instead of an arena for conflict, Iraq could well offer a space for regional reconciliation, preparing the ground for a regional security dialogue," she said.

"At the same time, we cannot ignore that Iraq faces serious challenges in preventing its territory from becoming the theater for different competitions," Hennis-Plasschaert said. "So, to all those feeling challenged: placing a further burden on Iraq is truly, the last thing it needs."