On Friday around dawn, the people of Kirkuk woke up to the sound of gunfire. According to a statement issued by local security forces in the northern Iraqi city, that is now controlled by Iraqi Kurdish military, around 100 fighters belonging to the extremist group known as the Islamic State, had come from nearby Hawija to cause havoc in Kirkuk.
The event, which saw fighting in the city’s streets for several days, has caused much resentment among locals. Kirkuk has a mixed population consisting of Arabs and Kurds and has been under threat from the militants in Hawija for years; now locals are asking why the security forces didn’t try and push the IS group out of Hawija at the same time as the fighting began over Mosul. Up until now, no plans had been drawn up to fight for Hawija until later.
Hawija, a mostly Sunni-Muslim populated town, is about 50 kilometres south of Kirkuk, and has been controlled by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group since the middle of 2014. Hawija was the site of ongoing Sunni Muslim anti-government protests that were eventually halted violently by the Iraqi army in early 2013, resulting in as many as 50 deaths. So the IS group found a lot of support here when they first arrived over two years ago.
In February, the IS group paraded captured Iraqi Kurdish fighters on Hawija's streets in cages while locals threw stones at them.
One of the main problems is the question as to who should do the fighting in and around Hawija. Sunni Muslim militias trained by the Iraqi government say that the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and Shiite Turkmen fighters should not take part in the battle for Hawija. This scrapping over responsibility delayed any attack in the area. But after these most recent events, everyone is saying that these differences must be put aside and the Hawija area needs to be included in current military planning.
“The aim of the attack was to ease pressure on the IS group’s leaders under attack in Mosul,” a statement by Kirkuk security forces said.
The statement went on to describe the events in more detail, noting that the 100 or so IS fighters arrived at the borders of Daquq at around midnight, from where they were taken in seven smaller vehicles to Kirkuk. They arrived in the city at around 3am in the morning.
The IS men were assisted by others inside Kirkuk to come further into the city and the fighters were apparently some of the IS group’s best fighters and included the so called “inghimasi” fighters, suicide fighters who go behind enemy lines with no intention of returning. The group divided up into five groups of 20 and their aim was to seize the provincial council buildings, police stations and prisons and to free a number of IS fighters held in the city.
After the attack the idea of leaving Hawija until after the Mosul operation was finished is looking like a bad one.
“Because of the events that took place on October 21, there is now an agreement between all security forces that Hawija needs to be liberated,” Shwan Hama Gharib, a commander in the Iraqi Kurdish military, told NIQASH. “It just proved that the IS group is using Hawija as a base to destabilize Kirkuk.”
“We have come to an agreement with the federal government about Hawija,” Jabbar al-Yawa, secretary general of the Kurdish defence ministry, confirmed. “We will coordinate with Iraqi forces in Tikrit and Iraqi Kurdish military in the west and northwest.”
Insiders say that the Kurdish governor of Ninawa province, Najmuddin Karim met with senior commanders of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes the day after the Kirkuk attack. Apparently, the trio agreed that the IS group should be pushed out of the Hawija district before the end of this year.
Military leaders also seem to think this would be a good time to start on a Hawija campaign. The district is now surrounded by anti-IS forces after recent fighting.
“The plan to re-take Hawija is a good one,” Rasoul Karkui, a senior commander of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk also known as Wasta Rasoul, told NIQASH. “The IS fighters will be attacked on all sides. The Iraqi Kurdish, the Iraqi army, the federal police and both Shiite and Sunni volunteer militias will all be taking part, as well as aircraft of the international coalition.”
Locals in Kirkuk are used to having dangerous neighbours – suicide bombers and car bombs in the city are thought to originate in Hawija.
“Kirkuk will become more stable after Hawija is liberated,” says Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of Kirkuk’s provincial council. “The people in the district have either fled or now despise the IS group because of their brutality. But we need a plan on how to administrate this area after the Is group is driven out.”
Locals of Kirkuk and Hawija have good reason for concern now. Iraqi Kurds have heard about how, in February, the IS group paraded captured Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the street in cages while locals threw stones at them.
And no doubt the residents of Hawija have heard about reprisals and acts of revenge inflicted upon civilian populations by volunteer militias, as well as the fact that displaced Arab families sheltering in Kirkuk were recently told they had to leave the Kurdish-controlled area - a council meeting discussed the fact that displaced Arabs would only be allowed to stay in the city if they could find a local guarantor. Otherwise they would have to live in a camp or leave the district. There were rumours that the IS fighters who attacked over the weekend had been smuggled in with displaced civilians, or that displaced civilians had assisted them.