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