ISIS strikes at Kirkuk in Iraq counterattack
KIRKUK, Iraq — Islamic State militants launched a wave of pre-dawn attacks Friday in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, killing at least 14 people and setting off fierce clashes with Kurdish security forces.
The assault appeared aimed at diverting attention from the Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul, and raised fears the extremists could lash out in unpredictable ways as they defend the largest city under their control and their last urban bastion in Iraq.
Multiple explosions rocked Kirkuk, and gunfire rang out around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was concentrated.
Smoke billowed over the city, and the streets were largely deserted out of fear of militant snipers. The Islamic State, also called ISIS, said its fighters targeted the provincial headquarters in a claim carried by its Aamaq news agency.
North of the city, three suicide bombers stormed a power plant in the town of Dibis, killing 13 workers, before blowing themselves up as police arrived, said Maj. Ahmed Kader Ali, the Dibis police chief.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the assault, according to the official IRNA news agency.
The Turkmeneli TV station, which had earlier shown live footage of smoke rising from outside t he provincial headquarters, said in a news bulletin that one of its reporters, Ahmet Haceroglu, was killed by a sniper while covering the fighting.
There was no immediate word on casualties among other civilians or the Kurdish forces in Kirkuk. Police and hospital officials could not be reached for comment.
Kirkuk is some 100 miles from the ISIS-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive Monday.
ISIS has in the past resorted to suicide bombings in and around Bagh- dad in response to battlefield losses elsewhere in the country.
Kirkuk is an oil-rich city claimed by both Iraq’s central government and the largely autonomous Kurdish region. Kurdish forces assumed full control of the city in the summer of 2014, as Iraq’s army and police crumbled in the face of a lightning advance by ISIS.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition launched the multipronged assault Monday to retake Mosul and surrounding areas — the largest operation undertaken by the Iraqi military since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
By Thursday, the Iraqi forces had advanced as far as Bartella, a historically Christian town some nine miles from Mosul’s outskirts.
Under ISIS rule, Christians must convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
“Bartella was liberated yesterday, and today we are inside its church,” Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati declared. “I bring the good news to our Christian brothers that the church is liberated.”
Iraqi counterterrorism forces raise the country’s flag Friday after retaking Bartella, a historically Christian town near Mosul, where Iraqi forces launched an offensive Monday.