The bombings in Baghdad that killed hundreds in recent weeks signal a shift in the Islamic State (IS) extremist group's tactics as it suffers setbacks on the battlefield, U.S. officials say.
Army General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said the militant group hopes that attacks in the capital will distract Iraqi leaders who are already distracted by an internal political crisis, prompting them to divert forces, resources, and energy away from the battlefield and into maintaining security in the capital.
But Votel stressed that IS had not given up its ambition to establish a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria through battlefield gains.
"They are looking for ways to start to regain their momentum or regain the initiative," he told reporters as he toured the Middle East.
Votel said the suicide bombings and other attacks in and around Baghdad over the past week, which have killed more than 140 civilians, show how rapidly momentum and tactics can change.
"While we abhor the things that the Islamic State does, I think we have to respect our enemies and respect their ability to adapt and adjust on the battlefield," he said.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who is now with the Soufan Group consultancy, agreed that IS had changed its tactics to get media attention and draw attention away from its setbacks on the battlefield.
"Baghdad is now being targeted because the group is on the defensive and they can still hurt the government in their capital," he told AFP.
The militants are "under massive military pressure" and there is "a political crisis that they can tie into for maximum chaos," he said.
Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition against IS, also said the group was trying to make up for losses on the battlefield and saw the political turmoil in Baghdad as "an opportunity they can try to exploit using truck bombs."
Iraq's legislature has been paralyzed for weeks over an effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to replace his politically appointed cabinet with technocrats.
U.S. officials say they have squeezed IS on multiple fronts, damaging the group's ability to raise revenue from oil, destroying substantial cash stockpiles, eliminating more than 120 leaders, and reducing the amount of territory they control by 45 percent in Iraq.
But the militant group, which includes some former commanders in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, has proven resilient and adaptive.
"We are seeing them see opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities," Votel said. "I think they believe it will cause the Iraqi government to divert forces, divert effort, divert intellectual horsepower to solving" the bombing problem, and perhaps backpedal on its campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from the militants.
Political divisions in Baghdad had already caused delays in the government's plans to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul.
Votel, who took over at Central Command seven weeks ago, said Iraqi forces had made important advances against IS in recent months, but had much more to accomplish.
"It is going to be a long and difficult fight" to retake Mosul and the rest of the Iraqi territory that IS captured in a lightning-fast offensive in 2014.
Votel said despite nearly two years of U.S. and coalition aerial bombing, and recent gains on the ground by both Iraqi and Syrian government forces, IS has not been pushed to the breaking point.
"We might see some signs" of that only if they lose Mosul and Raqqa, their self-declared capital in Syria, he said.
He described IS's return to suicide bombing tactics in Iraq as "reverting back to their terrorist roots." IS began as an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq led by the Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, until he was killed by a U.S. air strike in June 2006.
Remnants regrouped in Syria to form IS, and then swept into western and northern Iraq in the first half of 2014. Al-Qaeda has since disowned the group and its proclaimed caliphate.
With reporting by AP and AFP