Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

What Iraq could face after Mosul

Daring attacks by IS on Kirkuk and Rutba have rattled Iraq and raised many questions about the ongoing war against the jihadist group, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Islamic State (IS) militants, spilling over tightly secured lines from nearby town of Hawija, last week seized control of chunks of the northern city of Kirkuk in the most stunning push yet as the Iraqi security forces try to drive the group out of its largest stronghold in Mosul.

The raid, and an incursion into the desert town of Rutba on the Jordanian border on Sunday, showcased how IS can still mount dazzling strikes even as it is fighting back a formidable offensive launched by the US-backed Iraqi security forces to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

IS’s ferocious counterattacks also cast doubts about the Iraqi military and political strategy to defeat IS and establish security and stability in the country which has been marred in sectarian violence since the US invasion in 2003.

The raid on Kirkuk began before dawn Friday with nearly 100 IS fighters armed with assault rifles and explosives fanning out into neighbourhoods and targeting police stations, government buildings, power plants, mosques and political parties’ headquarters.

During the first hours of the assault, a fierce streets battle raged between the Kurdish Peshemrag forces, who have been in control of Kirkuk since Kurds seized the city from Iraqi security forces in 2014 exploiting the chaos that followed IS advances.

Video footages showed that the militants split into groups to take control of the city’s intersections and their snipers mounted mosques’ minarets and high buildings and started shooting at selected targets, security forces and sometimes at passers-by.

In one horrific assault, the militants attacked a power station north of the city and slaughtered over a dozen workers, including some Iranian engineers working in the installation.

Enforcements, including special counter-terrorism and intelligence units were dispatched from Erbil and Suliamaniya who mounted counterattacks to hunt down dozens of IS fighters who stormed public buildings.

Four days after the shock attack on Kirkuk, jihadist snipers and suspected suicide bombers were still at large, prompting fear of a prolonged battle in case the militants will be joined by desperate comrades from Hawija, which is besieged by Iraqi security forces.

Dozens of people were killed and wounded in Kirkuk, including Peshmerga, security forces and militants. Kurdish officials said some of the militants were arrested, including top commanders.

In a statement posted on Twitter by Aamaq, its media outlet, the group said the militants controlled eight neighbourhoods in Kirkuk and cut the highway with Baghdad. They also killed many of the Peshmerga soldiers and the security forces and seized large quantities of weapons and equipment.

As the attack started, Iraqi politicians were quick to declare that the assault was aimed at diverting attention away from the military push to retake Mosul, the jihadist group’s largest remaining stronghold in the country.

The officials suggested that the militants’ plan was to create a situation where security forces would be withdrawn from the Mosul operation zone and the focus shifted to Kirkuk, an oil-rich and strategic city which controls the northern highway with Baghdad.  They also claimed that the assault on Kirkuk was an effort to boost the morale of the group’s fighters and sympathisers.

Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, meanwhile, accused IS sleeper cells in the city of being behind the raid. He also claimed that the attackers received assistance from locals inside Kirkuk.

Other Kurdish officials blamed displaced Sunni families who sought shelters in Kirkuk after their towns were captured by IS and are waiting to return after rehabilitation of their homes. Sunni politicians reported that many of these families were ordered to leave Kirkuk after the attack.

There were also some recriminations. Kurdish lawmakers accused the government of neglecting Kirkuk by not sending enough money, weapons and equipment to its local police and security forces while Iraqi officials accused Kurdish parties who control Kirkuk of syphoning money from illegal oil sales.

In addition to blame trading, apparently to avoid taking responsibility for the embarrassing intrusion, there have been conspiracy theories, too.

Some said the attack on Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed both by Iraq’s central government and the Kurds, was orchestrated by Kurds to carry out ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk’s Arab Sunni population whom Kurds accused of being resettled in the province by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Others claimed it was a Turkish plot to allow Ankara to intervene to protect ethnics Turkmens, a large minority in Kirkuk and establish another foothold in northern Iraq.

A Kurdish security official in Kirkuk went even as far telling Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, that some 170 IS militants were airlifted by US warplanes which landed them near Daqqouk, a district south of the city shortly before the raid.

Only two days after the surprise assault on Kirkuk IS militants stormed Rutba, some two months after they were driven out from in the West of Iraq.

 Again the jihadi force seized much of the city and took over mosques and government buildings and carried out summary executions of government employees whom they accused of collaborating with the security forces.

The two lightening attacks came as the Iraqi security forces pushed forward under air cover of the US warplanes to recapture Mosul from IS. While, there are no signs that the militants increasing activities will hinder the battle of Mosul, the two incursions raised many questions about Iraq’s military and political strategy, especially about Baghdad’s plans to stabilise Sunni areas after the defeat of IS.

One of the major criticism is the timing of the Mosul operation and whether Iraqi security forces were full prepared for the October offensive without jeopardising their gains from IS in other parts of Iraq.

The Mosul offensive is largely believed to have been timed under pressure from Washington for the US presidential election in November to help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton win and boost President Barack Obama’s stature before he leaves office in January.

Skeptics have warned that Iraq may be not fully prepared for the battle of Mosul by the time and some suggested that Baghdad should first recapture other smaller towns still under IS control, especially Hawija which is which is some 160 km south of Mosul and adjacent to Kirkuk.

Now the dazzling assaults on Kirkuk and Rutba have demonstrated the dangers IS militants still poses and underscore their confidence and the kind of attacks they are capable to carry out after their defeat in Mosul.

Clearly, the Iraqi security forces which are still fighting IS over vast territories in four Sunni provinces and keep guard against the militants’ attacks in Baghdad and other major towns, are exhausted and badly overstretched while they are direly under-resourced.  

With so many foreign armies, paramilitary groups and non-state actors operating or deployed in the war zone and with a diversity of national, ethnic and sectarian interests and political agendas, the Iraqi security forces fighting in Mosul seem to be trapped by a battle timeline not of their won.

On the other hand, the Baghdad Shia-led government has not formalised a much talked about national stabilising strategy in Sunni provinces which were taken back from IS that will help neutralise the radicals and ultimately defeat the group.

Since Iraqi forces started their counter offensive to retake areas lost to IS in 2014 experts have argued that without putting forward a clear political programme for full inclusion of Iraq’s Sunnis in the political system and an enduring stabilisation strategy IS or another kind of Sunni rebellion could re-emerge.

The incursions in Kirkuk and Rutba in addition to recent guerrilla kinds of attacks in Anbar, Salah Eldine and Diyala and blasts in Baghdad are dangerous indicator that after the liberation of Mosul Iraq could still risk a prolonged insurgency.

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