The recent fighting in Kirkuk proved to be one of the largest operations by the Islamic State in the governorate since June. Using the cover of heavy fog, Islamic State fighters attacked Peshmerga positions overnight on Thursday 29th. Attacking multiple fronts, the insurgents were able to take a number of Peshmerga positions. Gaining control of Mala Abdullah, Maryam Beg, Tel Ward and the Maktab Khalid crossing, they managed to push Kurdish forces out of a number of strategic areas that have been the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks. The insurgents were also able to take the Al-Khabaz oilfield, south-west of Kirkuk city, where it is reported that they took a number of hostages.
There was a fierce counter-attack by Peshmerga forces, with the support of coalition airstrikes, and most of the territory lost to Islamic State fighters was regained. Dozens of Peshmerga fighters were killed, with large numbers injured. Some senior Peshmerga officers perished over the course of the fighting including Brigadier General Sherko Fatih Shwani and Brigadier Hussein Mansour. There was also confirmation that a number of Peshmerga were captured by Islamic State fighters in the assault.
Concurrently, on Friday four insurgents took control of the empty Kirkuk Palace (Qasr Kirkuk) Hotel, in downtown Kirkuk. A car bomb detonated outside the hotel before insurgents stormed the building. Local security forces and federal police managed to secure the building after the ensuing firefight. A number of informal local fighters also took up arms to defend the city. The bodies of these insurgents were then dragged through the streets of Kurdish neighborhoods in Kirkuk, a signal of the degrading relationship between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in the city.
There has been a steady growth in the fear of Islamic State ‘sleeper cells’ in the city, which has only been exacerbated by the flood of IDPs into the city. This, in turn, has led to the Sunni population fearing persecution at the hands of Kurds. The attack on the Palace hotel, in the centre of Kirkuk, will only fuel the possibilities of further inter-communal violence.
While Kirkuk has been the scene of almost constant fighting, the recent operation by the Islamic State may well be in reaction to the recent Peshmerga successes, in areas around Mosul. Shifting pressure by opening new fronts is a tactic that has been previously used by the Islamic State. Peshmerga fighters have now been diverted to refocus on Kirkuk battle lines.
Also, the use of adverse weather conditions to conduct operations is not a new tactic to be employed by the Islamic State. They have previously used the cover of fog to launch attacks in Kirkuk, and they also inflicted large casualties in Gwer, to the West of Erbil, by attacking during severe weather conditions.
Kirkuk will remain a hotbed of violence with roughly 45% of the governorate in Islamic State control. The areas of Rashad, Zab and Hawija will provide staging grounds for further attacks on frontline Peshmerga forces. While Kurdish forces will be reluctant to push forward into Sunni-Arab dominated areas to the West of Kirkuk, their control by Islamic State forces will remain a security threat for the whole governorate.
In the diverse city of Kirkuk, the recent fighting will only enflame tensions further. Since last June, the inter-communal relationships in the city have steadily got worse. While most Kurds blame Sunni Arabs and IDP’s for the worsening security situation, local Sunni Arabs are now terrified of local security forces, and fear reprisal attacks from the Kurds.
The situation in Kirkuk is both a political and security issue. While the status of Kirkuk remains unresolved and communities feel they are being under-represented politically, the cleavages in society will only propagate. While military might is needed to push back Islamic State fighters, political will is needed to harmonise communities. Without a political outlet to match the military strategy, Kirkuk will remain on the brink of further violence.
Politically, leaders must intervene to pull Kirkuk out of an ever increasing cycle of violence. As divisions grow, action is required before the prospect of future reconciliation between communities becomes insurmountable. Militarily, Peshmerga gains will be hard to sustain without further training, heavy artillery and continued air support. In Kirkuk, politics and security go hand-in-hand, both have to be addressed before the situation deteriorates.
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About MERI: The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region. Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.
MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).