New threat looms as Iraq makes gains in IS fight

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - LEE BERTHIAUME

OTTAWA — Coali­tion forces in Iraq are re­port­ing faster-than-ex­pected progress against the Is­lamic State group, although that suc­cess has been marred by fears that a new civil war is brew­ing in the coun­try.

The Iraqi mil­i­tary de­clared on Tues­day that it had re­gained con­trol of the town Haw­ija and the sur­round­ing area af­ter three weeks of fight­ing, elim­i­nat­ing IS’s last ma­jor strong­hold in Iraq.

That leaves a small pocket near the Syr­ian border as the last area still un­der the group’s con­trol.

In an in­ter­view with The Cana­dian Press, a se­nior coali­tion of­fi­cer said the bat­tle for Haw­ija, which in­cluded as­sis­tance from Cana­dian spe­cial forces, was much eas­ier than com­man­ders ex­pected.

“We thought they were go­ing to fight to re­tain that a lot more ag­gres­sively,” said Brig.-Gen. Craig Aitchi­son, who is Cana­dian, but help­ing over­see all coali­tion ground forces. “As we saw, they didn’t.”

Some ex­trem­ists es­caped into the desert, but many sur­ren­dered en masse af­ter a to­ken re­sis­tance, which Aitchi­son said has been the trend since the piv­otal bat­tle for Mo­sul ended in June.

“The gen­eral as­sess­ment is the back of the phys­i­cal caliphate has been bro­ken, the lead­er­ship has aban­doned the lo­cal fight­ers,” he said. “They’ve been de­mor­al­ized.”

Yet the good news is be­ing over­shad­owed by the war of words between Bagh­dad and the re­gional govern­ment in Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan re­gion over the lat­ter’s in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum last month.

Bagh­dad op­posed the ref­er­en­dum and has since banned in­ter­na­tional flights into the Kur­dish re­gion and threat­ened to fight the Kurds for con­trol of the oil­rich city of Kirkuk and other dis­puted land.

The Kurds briefly closed the main road from north­ern Iraq to Bagh­dad on Tues­day fol­low­ing re­ports of a po­ten­tial at­tack by Iraqi and Shi­ite mili­tia forces and the pos­si­bil­ity of a civil war looms large.

Aitchi­son played down the sit­u­a­tion as “mostly rhetoric,” but ac­knowl­edged the coali­tion is mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion to en­sure there is no im­pact on the fight against IS.

The gen­eral was re­luc­tant to dwell on what the coali­tion would do if fight­ing between Iraqis and Kurds did break out, ex­cept to say: “I think it would be safe to say that we wouldn’t take sides.

“We have contin­gency plans in place for a whole bunch of even­tu­al­i­ties,” he added. “But I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope that they can re­solve their po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments am­i­ca­bly.”

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi on Tues­day raised the pos­si­bil­ity of ask­ing coali­tion forces to leave the Kur­dis­tan re­gion — or Iraq al­to­gether, which Aitchi­son said was within Bagh­dad’s rights.

“We’re here at the in­vi­ta­tion of the govern­ment of Iraq,” he said, “and so if they de­cide that they’re go­ing to ask us to op­er­ate or not op­er­ate in cer­tain ar­eas, that’s their purview.”

The Cana­dian govern­ment has re­fused to weigh in on the ref­er­en­dum, even as oth­ers, such as the United States, Iran, Turkey and even the UN, have come out against it.

But of­fi­cials warned Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in a briefing note in Novem­ber 2015 that the war with the IS had let the Kurds “ex­pand into dis­puted ter­ri­tory in north­ern Iraq, in­clud­ing the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.”

“Should the (IS) threat re­cede, Bagh­dad will have to con­tend with a range of land dis­putes with the (Kurds), as well as strength­ened Iraqi Kur­dish forces, which have re­ceived train­ing and equip­ment from coali­tion mem­bers, in­clud­ing Canada.”

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