Iraqi army repels attack in Kirkuk, moves on ISIS-held Christian town amid Mosul offensive

Iraqi special forces soldiers run during clashes in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq October 20, 2016. © Goran Tomasevic
The Iraqi army has repelled an Islamic State attack launched in Kirkuk on Friday that is believed to be an attempt to divert the army from its offensive to retake Mosul. There are reports of ongoing skirmishes with some militants around the city.

On Friday, Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) ‘sleeper cells’ launched an attack on government buildings in Kirkuk, sparking clashes with security forces. After almost 24 hours of heavy fighting, the Iraqi army claimed that they managed to push back the jihadists. Many of the attackers were said to either have been killed or blown themselves up, according to Brigadier General Khattab Omer of the Kirkuk police, as cited by AP. 

On Saturday, the agency reported that 80 people had lost their lives as a result, while 170 more had been injured.

Omer also said that at least 25 militants were killed, but there have been reports that some are still fighting. 

Rudaw news agency claimed that skirmishes between police and militants were ongoing in several parts of the city on Saturday. A number of IS militants are believed to have taken up positions in some homes and tall buildings, as well as one of Kirkuk’s schools and a landmark hotel.

A police chief in Kirkuk told  on Friday that a total of about 70 militants had infiltrated the city for the assault. Security and anti-terrorism forces have been ordered to patrol Kirkuk streets in search of disguised or hiding militants.

Just south of Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga forces killed at least 11 IS militants on Saturday, Police Chief Sarhad Qadir told Rudaw.

In fierce clashes which lasted for two hours, 11 ISIS militants, who appeared to be foreigners, were killed by the Peshmerga forces in the village of Mahmoodia near Lailan town,” said Brigadier General Qadir, chief of Kirkuk’s Suburban Police, adding that “the militants belonged to the group who infiltrated Kirkuk, but later they fled the city.

The assault on Kirkuk was intended to divert the army’s attention from its offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamists’ stronghold in Iraq, which is located some 174 kilometers (108 miles) from Kirkuk.

On Saturday, Iraqi forces launched a new push to retake the town of Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniyah or Bakhdida, which is located just 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Mosul. The majority of the town’s population was forced to flee when IS militants seized it back in 2014, as anyone who was not Muslim was given an : leave, convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay special taxes, or die. The town is now believed to be largely uninhabited. 

Earlier this week, Iraqi special forces captured Bartella, a Christian village north of Qaraqosh, but they are still facing pockets of resistance in the area. There are several Christian  near Mosul, including Tel Askof, Tel Keif, and Qaramless, which were also captured by the Islamists back in 2014.

Two anonymous army officers told AP that the Iraqi army is now advancing on Qaraqosh from both the north and south, backed by US-led coalition’s airstrikes.

The move on Qaraqosh is part of a large-scale offensive to liberate Mosul that was launched on Monday, in what may be the biggest battle in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003. It is expected to take weeks, if not months. The advance has been complicated by mines that the militants have planted along approaches to the city. Iraqi forces have run into roadside bombs and been attacked by suicide truck bombers, as well as snipers, as they move closer to Mosul. 

Meanwhile, the UN human rights office reported on Friday that IS militants have taken some 550 families from villages around Mosul and are thought to be holding them as ‘human shields’ close to jihadist positions inside the city. The aftermath of the Mosul campaign could require the “largest and most complex” humanitarian relief operation in the world, as up to one million people may be forced from their homes, according to the UN.