Fe­roc­ity of Kirkuk at­tack points to tough fight for Mo­sul Fears of more sleeper cells in Kirkuk and other cities

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

At least 100 fighters sneaked into Kirkuk in the early hours of Fri­day with ma­chine guns, rocket pro­pelled grenades, sui­cide vests and a mes­sage: “Is­lamic State has taken over.” The mes­sage blared out from sev­eral mosque loud­speak­ers while the mil­i­tants went on a ram­page. By the time they had blasted their way across the city in a brazen and com­plex at­tack, 99 civil­ians and mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces were dead and 63 of their own were in the morgue, ac­cord­ing to Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

The scale of the op­er­a­tion - the largest of sev­eral by Is­lamic State to di­vert an ad­vance on their strong­hold in Mo­sul - shows how tough the bat­tle for Mo­sul may be­come and points to a con­tin­ued abil­ity of the mil­i­tant group to un­der­mine se­cu­rity across the coun­try even if its north­ern bas­tion falls. Ac­counts gath­ered by Reuters from res­i­dents, po­lice, se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials sug­gest it was car­ried out by forces that were highly trained, well-pre­pared and - alarm­ingly for the government - sup­ported from in­side Kirkuk. “What was sur­pris­ing is it was done so eas­ily,” said Ranj Tal­a­bani, a se­nior Kur­dish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. Like the Is­lamic State attacks on Paris last year, the op­er­a­tion ap­peared aimed at spread­ing chaos and fear rather than seiz­ing ter­ri­tory. Al­though the heav­i­est fight­ing was over by Fri­day night, clashes con­tin­ued for two days and of­fi­cials are still search­ing for Is­lamic State units in the city. The black­ened and bul­let-rid­den fa­cade of two ho­tels near Kirkuk’s gov­er­norate build­ing, one of the tar­gets of the at­tack, are a clear sign of its fe­roc­ity. The smell of smoke and cordite still linger.

Kirkuk, 100 km south­east of Mo­sul, is close to oil­fields which hold much of Iraq’s vast crude re­serves. It also lies near north­ern Iraq’s semi-au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion, and has been con­trolled by Kur­dish forces since the Iraqi army re­treated from ad­vanc­ing Is­lamic State forces in 2014. The at­tack took place four days af­ter the launch of an of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State in Mo­sul by Kur­dish pesh­merga, Iraqi sol­diers and a US-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion. The fighters ap­peared well-trained for ur­ban com­bat, a sign that the bat­tle for Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond largest city, could be drawn-out and bloody, ac­cord­ing to Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials. “These were the most pro­fes­sional fighters that I have seen since 2003,” said Halo Na­jat Hamza, di­rec­tor of the Asayesh, a Kur­dish se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence force, in Kirkuk.

On Sun­day af­ter­noon, two and a half days af­ter the at­tack be­gan, two snipers det­o­nated their sui­cide vests dur­ing a heavy ex­change of fire with se­cu­rity forces at an el­e­men­tary school. But no lo­cal of­fi­cial was pre­pared to say the at­tack was com­pletely over. “We are still hunt­ing them,” said one Kirkuk of­fi­cial who asked not to be iden­ti­fied for se­cu­rity rea­sons. The op­er­a­tion was not im­pro­vised: a video found on a Sam­sung Gal­axy phone on the body of a fighter shows footage of tar­gets around the city filmed be­fore the at­tack. “It in­volved a lot of prepa­ra­tion,” said Iraq’s for­mer fi­nance and for­eign min­is­ter Hoshi­yar Ze­bari, a Kurd.

The op­er­a­tion be­gan at ap­prox­i­mately 3 a.m. on Fri­day morn­ing, when fighters ar­rived in pickup trucks and were dropped off on the south­ern perime­ter of the city. The group broke up into 20 teams of five and fanned out across the city on foot. Sev­eral teams worked to­gether to at­tack the first two tar­gets: a base for the Asayesh and a po­lice sta­tion in south­ern Kirkuk. A fe­ro­cious gun­bat­tle broke out at both lo­ca­tions. “They looked wild,” said Hamza. He de­scribed the fighters as hav­ing long beards, long hair and “Afghan robes”, al­though Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials say they did not find any doc­u­ments on dead fighters to sug­gest they were for­eign com­bat­ants, and lo­cal peo­ple who en­coun­tered the fighters said they spoke a lo­cal Iraqi Ara­bic di­alect. — Reuters

MO­SUL: Iraqi fam­i­lies who were dis­placed by the on­go­ing op­er­a­tion by Iraqi forces against ji­hadists of the Is­lamic State group to re­take the city of Mo­sul, are seen gath­er­ing in an area near Qay­yarah. — AFP

KIRKUK: Iraqi government forces pa­trol the area of Kirkuk for mem­bers of the Is­lamic State (IS) group. — AFP

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