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In this file photo taken June 23, 2014, militants from the Islamic State parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle on a main street in Mosul, Iraq.Uncredited/The Associated Press

When France's President François Hollande declared "war" on the extremist movement known as Islamic State, blamed for recent terror attacks on Paris, he sent French fighter aircraft to bomb targets in the city of Raqqa inside Syria. And when Russian President Vladimir Putin said he want to "punish" Islamic State for its apparent role in downing a Russian airliner in Sinai last month, he, too, sent forces to join the French in attacking IS positions in Syria.

But they may be missing the mark by several hundred kilometres. Raqqa is not the headquarters of the IS movement; the Iraqi city of Mosul is.

"Islamic State remains essentially an Iraqi phenomenon at core," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "To defeat it, you must defeat it at home, in Iraq."

And that's not going to be easy, said Mr. Sayigh, who specializes in conflict and state-building in Syria and Iraq. "Islamic State has learned its tactics from Saddam Hussein."

All of which may make Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's resolve to put more Canadian military boots on the ground in northern Iraq to help Kurdish forces defeat Islamic State a welcome approach.

Islamic State began life known as al-Qaeda of Iraq (AQI) in the early 2000s, morphed into Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, then took on another initial (L for Levant) when it moved its forces into eastern Syria in 2013. Under its current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group declared itself a caliphate with the name Islamic State. In all configurations, the group has remained decidedly Iraqi in orientation.

Important decisions are not made in Raqqa or anywhere else in Syria, Mr. Sayigh said. They're made in Mosul, the predominantly Sunni city in northern Iraq, captured almost overnight by the group in June, 2014. The organization's governing council is "almost entirely Iraqi," Mr. Sayigh said. "The Shura [advisory] Council is more representative of all the IS provinces, but it has little real power."

Each province has a military and a political governor, he explained, but each one of them is "shadowed by a deputy who reports straight back to Mosul."

As well, he added, there's a parallel intelligence operation that keeps track of everyone.

The organization uses violence ruthlessly, "just as Saddam did," Mr. Sayigh said – to shock the world, frighten its rivals and impress its following.

Islamic State employs video recordings of executions and the destruction of historic artifacts to display its brutality, just as Mr. Hussein used films showing him ordering the execution of some of his own revolutionary council and, reportedly, even carrying out some of the sentences.

"Islamic State has the same DNA as Saddam's state," Mr. Sayigh said. "They've learned how to construct and maintain power."

He draws a comparison between the way Islamic State attracts its various foreign followers by using Islamist ideology, with how Mr. Hussein used Baathism and the Palestinian cause to appeal to Arab masses.

And just like him, the IS leadership doesn't care as much about what happens in those faraway places as it does about attracting recruits to support its state/caliphate project in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Sayigh says.

Islamic State also learned how to reward the people it governs. "They marshal their resources and deliver services," he explained, including health care, housing and infrastructure in what he describes as a "corruption-free manner."

"It may seem hard to believe," said Mr. Sayigh, who previously was a professor at King's College, London, "but a lot of Iraqi Sunnis are content under IS rule. They feel secure."

Indeed, many Sunnis in Mosul and central Iraq helped Islamic State when it swept into the area in the summer of 2014. They were so fed up with the heavy-handed pro-Shia disposition of the government of Nouri al-Maliki that they were prepared to take a flyer with Islamic State. Former officers in the disbanded Iraqi army saw an opportunity, as Sunnis, to return to power.

As such, the IS administration will be difficult to dislodge, says Mr. Sayigh, as Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias have found. Their drive through central Iraq conquered a number of smaller IS communities last winter, but it has made slow progress since then.

Iraqi Kurds have had greater success recently in recapturing the once predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar.

By all means, Islamic State should be confronted forcibly, Mr. Sayigh said. "But the real way to defeat them is through a combination of intelligent policing, community outreach, accountability to civilian authorities and more responsive government, not with blunt counter-insurgency tactics in a political vacuum."

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