Washignton Kurdish Institute
August 8, 2017
On July 10, 2017 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul city, with most of the areas in the Nineveh plains being liberated. It was only three years earlier, on June 6, 2014, that ISIS controlled all of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. However, currently there are still large towns and cities, like Tal Afar west of Mosul city and Hawija District in West of Kirkuk city, that remain under ISIS control.
On August 2, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched an operation to begin liberating Tal Afar. Yet the city’s liberation will be no simple task, with post-liberation governance being particularly complicated. Tal Afar is a diverse territory, home to Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmen, Shia Turkmen, and Yazidis. But the complexity of governance spans beyond just the local level, with most of the regional powers scrambling for control and influence over the city as well.
Unlike Tal Afar, Hawija is a more homogenous area, mostly dominated by Sunni Arabs. Still under the brutality of ISIS control, Hawija forms 40 percent of Kirkuk Province. The town has been a hotbed of violence and insurgency against U.S.-led coalition forces and the ISF since 2003. It has been the stronghold of many terrorist and insurgent groups — including, but not limited to, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Ansar Al Sunna, and the Naqshbandi Army. These groups have often merged and collaborated. For instance, on June 10, 2014, ISIS attacked and took control of Hawija with a small number of fighters; these fighters were aided significantly by local support, which allowed the insurgent terror group to take control of the area within 24 hours. Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim described Hawija as a “haven” for Islamic State (IS) militants. The governor also questioned why the U.S.-led coalition prioritized Mosul over Hawija, saying “I don’t know why the coalition has focused on Mosul and chosen to ignore a real threat in Hawija.”
On January 25, 2017 the ISF liberated the east side of Mosul city — a turning point for the fight against the terrorist organization. It’s believed that hundreds of ISIS fighters fled Mosul and regrouped in Tal Afar and Hawija during this time period.
In Tal Afar, ISIS remains in a primarily defensive posture — they aren’t able to launch any outside attacks with most of their focus and forces positioned to defend the city. In contrast, dozens of attacks have been launched from Hawija against Peshmerga forces stationed in Tuz and Kirkuk city. And the past six months have only further displayed the terrorist group’s dynamic nature, as it continues to adapt to realities on the ground. This is best evidenced in the aforementioned attacks on Tuz and Kirkuk. “ISIS gangs are blocking civilians from exiting,” explains Marwan al-Ani, an independent journalist focused on the spread of terrorist groups. “They isolate women and children and execute men. Civilians in Hawija today are without water, electricity, or food.”
The Peshmerga have regularly thwarted intermittent ISIS offensives, such as those on May 18 and July 7. The Islamic State also regularly utilizes improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in their attacks, a tactic with the potential to not only horribly maim but also kill. Two such IEDs killed a Peshmerga officer on May 5th and five other Kurdish soldiers on August 4. Recent bombings on oil pipelines have not only resulted in the destruction of vital economic infrastructure but in the killing of security personnel as well. Luckily, however, often times the Peshmerga are able to defuse or securely detonate these IEDs before anyone is killed or injured. For instance, on July 9th, the Peshmerga defused explosives placed between two oil wells. On June 17 security forces foiled a car bomb. And on June 18, Islamic State suicide bombers blew themselves up in a failed attempt to kill Peshmerga forces.
ISIS has not limited itself to attacking the Peshmerga, however. On July 27, four civilians of the Kakai faith were killed south of Kirkuk. They also brutally attacked and killed 25 civilians trying to flee to liberated areas on April 24.
These assaults have not all been successful: the Peshmerga have been able to thwart many ISIS advances. Almost on a daily basis the police and the Kurdish security forces (Asayish) detain terrorists planning terrorist attacks against Kirkuk.
“Hawijah is characterized by a complex geography and most of those who fled Selahaddin, Diyala, Mosul, and Kirkuk arrived in Hawija,” Al-Ani said.
ISIS is desperately attempting to make up for its losses in Mosul by opening new fronts and trying to reenter Diyala Province via Tuz town. The only way for ISIS to reach Diyala is via Tuz south of Kirkuk where the Peshmerga and ISF are stationed. ISIS terrorists believe that Diyala is a suitable area to restart their activities after the defeat of their Caliphate, banking on a strategy of exploiting sectarian tensions in the region with its bloody history of conflict between Sunni and Shia groups. ISIS utilizes cells in Diyala as a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the angry Sunni population against the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.
By targeting Kirkuk, ISIS terrorists are going after the vital infrastructure nearby the front lines just out of Hawija district. Northern oil and gas companies in Kirkuk have oil pipelines and gas storages near the border of ISIS-controlled areas.
Al-Ani believes that forming a joint operation room between Peshmerga forces, police, ISF, and tribal forces (supported by the U.S.-led coalition) is the most suitable solution for liberating Hawija.
“Having a joint operation of these forces will defuse ISIS’s plans to create ethnic and sectarian tensions during the liberation campaign,” said Al-Ani.
The further delay of Hawija’s liberation campaign will only lead to the increase of attacks against civilians, the Peshmerga, and the ISF. The Iraqi government should immediately implement a plan to liberate the district that involves Kirkuk’s local government, local Sunni tribes, and the U.S.-led coalition. This liberation campaign should, however, not involve overly sectarian forces. These militias should stay out of Hawija, as they have the real potential to spark intractable, sectarian conflict.
Successfully liberating Hawija district will greatly cripple ISIS’s movements, stifle the terrorist group’s attempts to cross into Diyala province, save hundreds of thousands of civilians’ lives, and alleviate the deadly threat that the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk faces from the region on a daily basis.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributers do not necessary reflect those of the WKI.