By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key Take-Away: ISIS conducted a large-scale campaign against civilian and military targets across Iraq between February 25 and February 29. Two ISIS attackers detonated their Suicide Vests (SVESTs) at a mosque in Shuala in northwestern Baghdad on February 25, setting off a series of SVEST attacks across Iraq. Deadly SVEST attacks targeted Sadr City on February 27 and the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad on February 28, as well as Haditha in western Anbar and Muqdadiyah in central Diyala Province on February 29. The series constitutes the deadliest wave of ISIS attacks in 2016. The large increase in the use of SVESTs as opposed to the Suicide Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED), a signature ISIS attack type, may be in response to the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) increased ability to counter SVBIEDs using Russian Kornet and American AT4 anti-tank rockets; deliveries of these weapons began in early June 2015 and were followed by an increase in the number of failed SVBIED attacks on security forces in Iraq. The attacks may come in response to recent forward deployments by the ISF to prepare for operations to recapture Hit District, west of Ramadi, and areas of Ninewa Province. Deadly attacks may force the ISF to focus on securing ISF-held areas instead of on recapturing areas from ISIS; the attack on Haditha may have been an attempt to shift forces who are preparing for an assault on Hit District northwards to defend Haditha. The attacks also likely intend to stoke sectarian violence, similar to how a VBIED and SVEST attack in Muqdadiyah on January 11, 2015 led Iraqi Shi’a militias to rampage in the predominantly Sunni district and destroy six mosques. Sectarian backlash will be particularly damaging at a time when PM Abadi’s government is unstable and going through a cabinet reshuffle. Iraqi Shi’a militias are likely to retaliate against Sunni civilians, particularly since several leaders among Popular Mobilization groups, reportedly including the Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, were among the casualties in the February 29 attack in Muqdadiyah. Significant violence or unrest may compromise the ability of PM Abadi and conciliatory political blocs to compose a new cabinet as part of ongoing reforms, and sufficiently destabilize the political situation to delay or collapse efforts to complete the reform process.