Security forces managed on Sunday to put down a complex Daesh state attack on the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as clashes with militants erupted for the third straight day. Local security forces said they repelled another attack early in the day, clashed intermittently with the fighters and ferreted out militants who remained in the city.
The three-day assault was a show of resilience by Daesh, launched days after an array of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces began a long-planned offensive to retake Mosul, about 100 miles northwest of Kirkuk and the group’s last remaining stronghold in the country. Daesh has been fighting back against the offensive by sending suicide bombers in explosive-laden cars charging into columns of advancing Iraqi forces. The militants also set fire to sulfur stocks at a factory south of Mosul, sending up a plume of noxious smoke that drifted over the nearby Qayyarah military base, where U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the Mosul offensive are stationed. A regional health official on Sunday said about 500 people had been sickened by the smoke and treated at a hospital, adding that he didn’t know of any deaths from the fumes.
The assault on Kirkuk began with nearly 100 Daesh fighters fanning out into the city on Friday, using suicide bombers and gunmen and targeting police buildings and patrols. They battled security forces for two days. By late Saturday, officials said they had mostly cleared the attackers and were back in control of the city. However, Daesh launched fresh attacks late Saturday and early Sunday. Before dawn, Kurdish Peshmerga forces defeated Daesh jihadists who were driving armored vehicles and Humvees, said Kamal Karkookli, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk. Police killed a suicide bomber in the city center, local security officials said. Some Peshmerga units were redeployed from the Mosul front to aid security operations in the Kirkuk area, said Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a Peshmerga spokesman. “We have no choice. We pulled some forces from front lines to support Kirkuk,” he said.
A senior U.S. official on Saturday said the Kirkuk attacks had no major impact on the Mosul operations and a Peshmerga commander near the front said the troops sent to Kirkuk had finished their mission in Mosul before being called to Kirkuk. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil on Sunday, his second day in Iraq, to get battlefield assessments of the fight against Daesh. Mr. Carter met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and other officials, as well as troops. He was expected to raise the issue of a large group of Sunni Arab fighters trained in Bashiqa by the Turks. Baghdad has said Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq violates Iraqi sovereignty. Mr. Carter on Friday hinted that he could broker a deal between the two countries after a brief visit to Ankara and that Turkey could be allowed to contribute to the operation in Mosul pending approval from Baghdad. But on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the offer, saying he didn’t need the Turks’ help.
In Kirkuk, local police Capt. Star Muhammad said fighters were likely still hiding in the city. “There are suicide bombers,” he said in front of a government building pocked by bullets. When the attack began on Friday, some militants set up firing positions from a police station across the street. Their goal may have been to break into the jail next to the station to free comrades, local residents said. Abu Mohammad, 51 years old, scrubbed the inside of his barber shop in a building across from the police station that was targeted, the walls dusty and sooty from the clashes. Two bullet holes had pierced his glass front door. “I was at home and watched all this on television,” he said of the attack. “I’ve not been here for two days.” He said the repulsed attack showed people from Kirkuk aren’t scared of Daesh anymore. “From our point of view, Daesh are like ants now,” he said proudly, using another name for the group. “We have belief in our hearts. We are Muslims and we don’t want to give our city to unbelievers.”
Sources: Wall Street Journal/Syria & Iraq News